Gormenghast on Lake Burley Griffin

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

So the article by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton in today’s SMH is heaps better than most of the political commentary that we normally get but it is still incomplete.

The things they get right:

  • The democratic breakdown is international.
  • There will be no return to politics as normal. This is not a temporary change.
  • The disconnection between electorates and the traditional major political parties is a key element of this dysfunction.
  • Collective activities as whole that used to support or intersect with political activity (e.g. unions, churches) are in decline.

What’s missing from their analysis?

There’s no mention of the economic and social changes of the past 40 years:

  • As a nation, we are so much richer than we were in the 1940s or even the 1970s. Most of us have experienced some of that wealth.
  • At the same time, inequality has been growing since the early 70s. We are not as bad as the US but wage growth has started to flatten out.
  • We are aging as a population and wealth increasingly sits with the older generation.
  • We are more diverse. Since the end of the white Australia policy, our origins are more visibly non-European.
  • We are ever more urbanized and sorted – moving to locations where we mix with those demographically, economically and ideologically similar to us (again to some extent and not as much as the US).

We are not the same nation that elected Menzies, Whitlam or Hawke. That is the reason that we cannot go back to those times. We are no longer the people who made those decisions. Out decisions therefore must be new ones.

The article doesn’t talk about anxiety. For all its faults, Yascha Mounk’s recent book on a similar topic is right to focus on the appeal of populists to those worried about their economic well-being or their national identity. David Marr’s article on Pauline Hanson highlighted that her supporters have a profoundly pessimistic view of the future. Scared people do crazy things.

Like many articles about our political malaise, the recommendations are underwhelming.

“Major political parties will also need to adapt their structures. Over the last quarter century, they have allowed their membership to dwindle and their organisational wings to succumb to hyper-centralised control, opaque preselections, divvying out of political favours and dubious donations. In an increasingly ideological world, major parties can’t rely on compulsory voting to bring out their supporters. They will need to re-build their structures in ways that build respect, trust, authenticity, conviction and participation”

Too easy! If only someone had thought of that before. I suspect that political parties can’t just do some procedural spring cleaning and have a few outreach sessions at village fetes and surburban festivals. Their logics of operation are too engrained. The apathy of the general public is too far gone. They will only be reborn through a catastrophe, through trial by ordeal. Or they will be replaced by something different. Something that may be better, worse or both.

“Whoever they vote for, people will also have to adjust the way they assess and reward politicians if they want our national parliament to function more effectively. Rather than reward absolutism, voters will need to reward politicians, and political parties, who can cooperate and achieve agreement across political battle lines.”

Why would they do that? Because two gentlemen writing an article in broadsheet tell them to?

Why are the solutions to our current political predicament proffered so desultory? It is because no one really knows what to do. And that’s OK because there is unlikely to be one simple solution. This is a Super Wicked Problem. This is a complex problem that requires new ideas and new ways of doing things. Most of those new ideas will fail. That’s also OK. That’s what happens. But some will work. And the future will not look like the past.

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Facebook – Signal / Noise

Cyberspace Anarchitecture as Jungle-War is the typically awesome title of a typically incomprehensible Nick Land article. It lurches out of my id as I contemplate the current Facebook* fiasco. Not so much a watershed as a tsunami, the aftermath of the 2016 US election exposed efforts by multiple US and non-US actors to influence the election. This should come as no surprise. Influencing elections is what groups try to do. That’s part of democracy. However the 2016 election was decided by a very small number of votes. The narrowness of victory means that the losing side feels that every action mattered. Rural whites abandoned by the Democrats. Hilary Clinton’s emails. FBI intransigence. The list goes on and on and on and… I’m sorry, were you saying something to me?

Anyway, it became increasingly clear that Russia attempted to influence the US election through social media targeting  – specifically buying ads on Facebook. There is a wonderfully detailed article was published in Wired about this in February. But that wasn’t the trigger for the outrage we have been experiencing. That was a series of exposes written about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data that they obtained from academics to “psychographically” profile users and then target ads at them during both the UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election.

This is sometimes written up as though Cambridge Analytica have data superpowers that won these democratic contests for their clients. That’s certainly what they would like their potential customers to think – as do most firms with the phrases “big data”, “machine learning”, or “artificial intelligence” in their pitch decks. But they probably didn’t – the model doesn’t actually work very well. However the Cambridge Analytica scandal has both highlighted and obscured a number of things.

It has highlighted that the Tech Behemoths hold a lot of data about you and they are not always careful with it**. Some of us have been aware of this for years. The message we were told was:

“Consumers will happily give up their data and privacy in exchange for a free service. Advertisers will pay for that data for advertising. Consumers get a free service AND better advertising. We make truckloads of money. Everyone is a winner!”

The mindset of Silicon Valley firms is that data is the new oil. The more oil you have the better. You want to be Saudi Arabia (more oil) not Basingstoke (less oil) – right? Now there’s a thing in economics called the “resource curse” that they might want to think about but for now, lets state that tech firms collect and hoard as much data as they can. Facebook is not alone here – this mass data harvesting is a norm (indeed a core value) for the Tech Behemoths. So why Facebook?

Well, one issue is that traditional media companies hate Facebook. Apple has given us new devices. Amazon has sold stuff in new ways. No one really cares about Twitter any more. Google comes close to Facebook in its co-domination of the online advertising market that has subverted the business traditional media companies. But Facebook’s combination of walled garden and continual changing of the game pisses off traditional media businesses like nothing else – that comes through in the Wired article.

It is easy to both overestimate and underestimate the power of Facebook. It dominates consumer entertainment / distraction to a huge degree but beyond that its ambitions are shallow. Google has a whole portfolio of projects (e.g. self-driving cars) based on its founders’ adolescent science fiction dreams. Facebook’s acquisitions have been focused on consumer communications. It is very profitable and its high market capitalization both indicates the future riches that investors expect it to deliver and also gives it power in acquisitions but it appears #393 on the 2017 Fortune Global 500 with a revenue of $27bn (sandwiched between Coop Group and Traveler Cos).

But it’s not just trad media sour grapes. Facebook does have a case to answer. It is now the world’s most powerful media company. It doesn’t want to be a media company – or at least it does not want to be regulated like one. But it is. And it should be. And this scandal may blow over and Facebook’s massive user base may go back to using it willy-nilly. Or they may not. And while the US government has shown itself to be unwilling to regulate these new markets, the EU has been far more activist. To say nothing of the Chinese (where the internet market is very different).

However all this noise has obscured other things. Just as the Facebook scandal was firing up, there was a smaller kerfuffle about a talk given by veteran internet researcher danah boyd @ SXSW 2018. You can:

Done that? OK. So part of the Cambridge Analytica narrative is that CA “stole” Brexit and the US presidency. That narrative is problematic because the real question is why such patently bad ideas as a Donald Trump presidency or a poorly thought through Brexit were popular enough to be viable in the first place***. If these things were “stolen” then they were left in plain sight with a massive sign saying “steal me” hanging over them, a bag on one side for the thief to carry them off in for maximum convenience, and a call placed at the local den of thieves advising them of this exciting opportunity.

danah’s point is a confronting one. Her talk is a bit of a mess. But I actually like that. I am watching someone trying to make sense of a messy, complex situation. If media literacy is simply telling people that Fox News is bad then it will fail. What danah is talking about here is politics. The messy politics of engaging with people that you disagree with. The need to rebuild community and connection with people with whom you can both disagree and get things done. What does it mean to create a community of understanding? Who knows. Even Facebook could be a part of this. But what she is talking about is not education or media literacy. Do not be mistaken. It is politics.

Meanwhile just under the smooth, frictionless UI surface of Facebook, we are still in the jungle, in the anarchitecture. We have met the enemy, Porkypine, and he is us.

*Takes, like revenge, are a dish best served cold.

**I combat this by lying a lot on social media. While I would like to pretend that I arrived at this through careful strategizing, it’s really just the fortuitous by-product of being a sociopath.

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Couping Sweet Nothings

As I have tried to make sense of the last two years in global politics, I have been reading Yascha Mounk’s articles and listening to his podcasts for the past year. He has been unapologetic in sounding the alarm about the dangers that democracy faces. To the white nationalist right, he is obviously the worst kind of globalist. A Jew born in Germany, educated in a range of European countries and now installed at Harvard – he might as well be playing Young George Soros in the Steve Bannon-directed, Hatreon-funded biopic. And that cosmopolitan background does come through in his writing for both better and worse but more of that later.

The People vs Democracy is a summary of his research and thinking of the topic of democratic deconsolidation. It’s in 3 chunks.

The first chunk outlines our current predicament. It is the most original part of the book. Mounk’s point is that liberal democracy has historically been sold as a package – the democratic bit (elections and involvement of citizens in decision-making) mutually reinforcing the liberal bit (the rights of individuals and minorities being protected). While this alignment has not been perfect, it has been there. Mounk then observes that this package is coming apart. Populist leaders like those of Hungary, Poland, and the USA claim to embody the democratic will of the people while removing the rights of individuals and demonizing minorities. Meanwhile the institutions like the EU protect individual and minority rights but have cut themselves off from democratic accountability. Underpinning all this, the citizens of the West are falling out of love with democracy. The young view democracy far less favourably than the old – and are more open to extremist positions and military dictatorships. Politicians take an increasingly “win at all costs” approach, ignore norms in pursuit of power and receive no comeback from the electorate.

The second chunk covers the origins of this state of affairs. Mounk identifies three main causes. Firstly, social media has allowed voices that used to be peripheral and groups that used to be divided to connect and mobilize more effectively. Secondly, Western economies grew strongly after WW2 and also shared those gains equitably. Since the 1970s, inequality has risen while productivity has slowed. While we are undoubtedly better off than our grandparents, the sense of economic anxiety has risen. It is not the poorest who run to the populists but those who feel that they have most to lose. The future looks bleak. The third point is that Western nation states have experienced rising levels of immigration and now have significant non-White and non-Christian minorities. Again, this is more a matter of perception and anxiety as cities with high levels of immigration over a period of time tend to have positive views of them.

The third chunk ends with Mounk’s proposals to fix the mess. He proposes domesticating nationalism, making the economy more productive and equal, and restoring the civic faith (mostly through civics lessons). The nationalism chapter starts off with him recounting his own journey from naïve universalist to a deeper appreciation of national difference and its role in identity.

The first chunk is certainly the most original and engaging. The issues that Mounk highlights are real and the survey research is sobering. I’m not a political scientist so I can’t comment on the novelty of the liberal / democratic distinction but it was new to me. What’s missing here is some of the qualitative and contextual background to these views. There are snatches of reportage from populist rallies and conversations with important people but it is largely a dry account of a very wet and messy topic. The second section is much less original. The commentary within it bears repeating because the context of our democratic predicament is often lost in the hot takes of the day. What crazy thing has Donald Trump done or said today? And if we just focus on the surface noise then we are never going to fix any of this. While I agree with the comments on economic and national anxiety and I sort of agree about social media (I think it has been highly visible but smaller in impact than often stated), there are things missing from this account and three stand out.

  • The gap in age and education is mentioned but underexplored. The biggest predictor of voting in the Brexit referendum was university education. Closely followed by age (the two variables are not independent). The post-2008 rise in unemployment has fallen disproportionally on the young.
  • The slow, mutual unconscious uncoupling between electorates and political parties has been more complex than related by Mounk and more consequential. Political parties are both widely loathed by the public and crucially important to democratic function.
  • The associated roles of other vehicles of collective identity (unions and churches) are also alluded to but deserve more focus. Why have they fallen by the wayside and what does this mean for how citizens engage in politics?

I agree with most of Mounk’s policy proposals. And why wouldn’t I? After all, I am also a university educated white man who has emigrated from his country of birth. I am also a globalist. Calling for a fairer society and greater productivity and more education are a motherhood and apple pie statements in our milieu. To give him his due, Mounk does also plead with our globalist brothers and sisters to stop calling those who vote for populists “stupid” and talk in ways that address their anxieties and give them hope. This empathy has to go beyond the occasional broadsheet magazine article that treats Trump voters like they are animals to be observed in a zoo.

However I am not sure that Mounk’s proposals are effective. Some of the more sweeping economic and social proposals will not happen – for now. The civics lessons strike me as counterproductive (just another lesson for kids to sleep through). We can’t just teach people about democracy and political engagement, we have to let them do it. This has to start locally (all politics are local after all). Nicholas Gruen favours sortition and direct democracy. I see that as being one option but there will need to be many.

Mounk identified the slow collapse of democracy of as a multi-causal problem. I would go further and say it is a wicked problem – or even a super wicked problem. It will be solved by multiple interventions and challenges. But it requires a lot of them – and soon.

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Dead History

I have known Matthew Ford for many years. I have been listening to The Dead Prussian podcast (run by Mick Cook) on and off for a year. I don’t know Kim Wagner but I listened to the podcast episode On Debating The Role of Military Historians with interest. A lot of good points are made by the three of them. I want to draw out some things that are hinted at but strike me as important.

  1. For many years, military history WAS history. You wrote history about things that you thought were memorable and important and what could be more memorable and important than war. Thucydides is a case in point.
  2. The role of military in society. I think the first point to remember is that in Western world, fewer and fewer people have direct experience of war. The last “Total War” ended in 1945.  Conscription ended in 1963 for the UK, 1972 for Australia, and 1973 for the USA. The changing nature of conflict (localised wars fought far away) and the technology used to wage war changed its workforce demands. In a sense, these changes to the war machine were harbingers of the outsourcing/off-shoring and automation that began to ravage the industrial workforce at this time. Most people in these societies experience war vicariously. This changes the nature of military history that the general public wish to consume. “War” becomes another historical genre – like Jane Austin Regency England or Ancient Rome. Accuracy and insight matters less than entertainment.
  3. The role of historians in society. Academia has become its own world. As a set of institutions, modern academia has been shaped by war directly and indirectly. The GI Bill in the US, the Cold War drive for scientific research, the post-WW2 welfare states set up in the West, all these led to a massive expansion of the higher education sector. Academics in general now write mostly for each other. They use the jargon of their institutions and work for doggy treats publication in top flight academic journals. All three men allude to it in the podcast, most academic writing is not written for the general public, it is written for other academics. Matthew’s book is excellent but it contains a lot of detail about i. gun manufacture and ii. sociology of technology that appeals to two non-overlapping groups of nerds. Populist TV history is a thing but its appeal is centred around two forms. The form of places – the history of a specific (e.g. London) or a general (e.g. The Sea) locale. The second form is of people. Kings and queens are back in fashion but so is people’s history. Families play act being Victorian bakers or Civil War frontiersmen. TV privileges the visual and the personal. Analysis and systems make for less good TV – or rather it takes a truly great director to make them come alive. For books, biography and contained narratives dominate. Tell me a story with a beginning, middle, and an end.
  4. The relationship between the State and Military Historians. Again, our podtagonists* also mention the desire of politicians and military leaders to use history for their own ends and there is some disappointment at the willingness of politicians to do this. I would note that all social scientists seem to suffer from “influence envy”. Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry discusses the role of international relations specialists – and decries their relative unimportance compared to economists. Presumably different economists decry each others influence (“The Monetarists get more time with public servants than us Keynesians, it’s not fair, I’m taking my econometric model and going home”). Academics will never have the influence they think they deserve. And that’s both a good and a bad thing.

*Podcast Protagonist.

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Power Singular And Plural

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Libertarians attract and confound me. I get the whole “individual freedom” thing. I grew up in mundanely repressive religion community where whatever you wanted to do was probably sinful. So a creed that focuses on personal autonomy is enticing.

But I am often disappointed by the limits of libertarian analyses of power. The greatest threat to freedom is “The Government”. Whatever limits the power of the government is good for the rest of us. This analysis is not wholly wrong. Governments can and do attempt to control their subjects and citizens. This is sometimes nakedly predatory but it can also be clothed in paternalistic weeds – “We know what’s best for you. We are simply looking out for you. Let us take care of you.”

However we do not live in the world of Hobbes’ Leviathan – where the sovereign wields absolute power. We live in a world far closer to the quote at the start of this post. It is Ephesians 6:12 and the author writes of not a single “power” but “powers” and “principalities”.  A world with many sources of authority, of power, and of control. The world we live in is the world of Ephesians. It is a world dominated by multi-national corporations, semi-feudal petrostates, technology evangelists who only want the best for you (and the best for you just happens to involve their technology platform). It is a multi-polar, multi-dimensional world.

Are these rulers all dark? Is there only spiritual wickedness in high places? I think that viewpoint is excessively bleak. However the rulers of this world are not so much evil as amoral. Their logics of profit and personal enrichment and growth and influence propel along certain trajectories that may be inimical to others. There’s no malice from the driver to the roadkill. We wrestle not against flesh and blood.

So libertarians rail against the state cramping their style but they have little say about the power of non-government actors. Business people are simply entrepreneurs to admire. And they might just be the ones funding your think tank if you want to lobby for laxer regulations.

The extreme individualism that libertarians evince militates against collective action. Hey. You. Get off of my cloud. Politics is born in the acknowledge of collective interest furthered by collective action. You cannot do it by yourself.

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Cold War Kids

Islam is not a religion. Australian Senator Pauline Hanson says this. Australian newspaper commentator Andrew Bolt says this. Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn says this. Islam is not a religion but rather it is a “political ideology”. Therefore suppressing and excluding its followers cannot be religious discrimination. Rather it is a rational response to an external political threat. Those people in the Mosque on Fridays? They are not praying, no matter what they may think. They are engaging in political subversion.

This claim strikes me as patently false. A religion provides a framework (often based on beliefs that include the supernatural) to understand why I am here, what I should do when I am alive, who I should do it with, and then what happens to me after death. It offers purpose, consolation and release. To quote a noted theologian:

Religion is the general theory of this world… It is the fantastic realization of the human… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

Islam is clearly a religion. It has supernatural beliefs, moral frameworks, a community of believers and a set of rituals to follow. So why claim that it is not?

There is a nuanced, intellectual response to this. That would be to say that the line between “religion” and “ideology” is blurred – always and everywhere. They both make descriptive and normative claims about the world – this is how it is and how it should be. They both urge appropriate action (e.g. a proletarian revolution, the dismantling of all government regulation, free milk in schools). They both offer a community of fellow believers (which may be the primary pay-off you get for joining in). They both provide rituals. Both tend to rely on canonical texts and figures, enforce orthodoxy, and spawn heretical sects. Religions and ideological intellectuals pen impenetrable works for their peers. The rank and file make do with slogans, camaraderie and, maybe, free milk. Religion may prefer supernatural justifications while ideologies appeal to the authority of science (or something that looks like science in a darkened room with a bright light behind it). But “religion” and “ideology” are more than just good friends.

However I do not think that this is argument of those who claim that “Islam is an ideology” because, for them, Christianity is obviously NOT an ideology. It is a proper religion. Islam is a political project fomented by foreigners that threatens to destabilize our very society. To these anti-Islamists, it looks very like a political ideology against which Europe, North America, and Western Europe struggled. Islamic terrorists and extremists have been referred to as “Islamofascists”. But fascism is not the model in mind for the “Islam = Ideology” crowd. Instead the model is communism (capitalism, like Christianity, does not count as an ideology). To understand why this is the case, you have to understand how our views of the world and who we are have been shaped by our recent past.

World War 2 was relatively short and it made strange bedfellows of the USA, the UK, and the Soviet Union (Australia had a walk-on part). It was a total war that had massive ramifications for all the nations involved. But it was short. The Cold War went on for over four decades. It created institutions and movements and shaped how those involved saw their place in the world. It was also a war fought within Western societies. World War 2 accelerated the development of welfare states within Western countries. It accelerated civil rights movements that came to fruition in the 60s. It was time of paranoia but also a time of growing material wealth and growing hope. And also the creation of the Right as the movement that we know today. The Right consists of two groups with very different goals.

The first group are Conservatives who want to prevent change – and often actively want to return to a previous golden age. The world is full of moral decay and society is on the verge of collapse. The decade that conservatives talk of with most fondness is the 1950s. Although the thing about nostalgia is that memory can play tricks. Yes, the 50s were a time of strong economic growth and relative social order – and they were also the time when the welfare state was at its strongest. Conservatives are obsessed with order (the touchstone of Conservative philosophy is Burke). They commit to democracy only in so much as the system can guard against change.

The second group are (and I am now going to confuse any US readers) Liberals. And by “Liberals”, I mean those who hew to a “classical liberal” view of the world that focuses on the rights of the individual – esp. the economic rights of the individual. Liberals view the government as inherently predatory and bad. Freedom can be found in reducing laws and cutting red tape. The formative writers of Liberalism (Locke, Mill) were writing in a time where the primary threat to freedom came from either governments or the Church (Liberals tend to have a very narrow understanding of power).

It’s not obvious what these two groups have in common. Conservatives want order and hate change. Liberals want individual autonomy and hate government. The only thing that could bring them together would be an activist government trying to implement social change. Governments like the Soviet Union. Governments like the civil rights driven welfare states of the 1960s. The Right that we see now was as much a product of the 60s as Jimi Hendrix. It was not until the late 70s that they had the opportunity to take power in the US and the UK.

The 80s were the glory years. Rolling back welfare provisions. Smashing organized labour. Blocking civil rights legislation. Denouncing the Evil Empire. And then something unexpected happened. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed. Quickly. Relatively bloodlessly. Within the space of a few short years, there was no Evil Empire. The 90s were a mixed time for Conservatism. Sure there were gays and brown people to be suspicious of. There was the “Left-Wing Lying Media” But where were the real enemies? The battles of the 80s had all been won. China was still lurking under the radar, having dealt with their 1989 dissidents more ruthlessly and effectively than the Soviets. But nothing brings people together like a common enemy and the tensions between Conservatives and Liberals keep bubbling up (Brexit can be seen as one such argument).

All was not lost. Enter Islamic terrorism. Spectacular acts of horrific violence committed (mostly) by people who don’t look like you. There is a problem with Islamic terrorism though. There isn’t enough of it. There are were 1.5 billion Communists in 1989. The threat from Islamic terrorists is real but they are small and localized. The threat they pose is not existential. So you need something bigger. How about Islam itself? That’s over a 1 billion people. It can be the new ideology. Islamic immigrants within Western societies are just like the Communist infiltrators of the 1950s. We must stand strong against these Islamist nations. Unless we buy oil from them and they only kill their own people rather than ours. In which case, they are fine.

Now this model of Islam-as-Communism is all well and good as a story. But the Sheik-as-Commissar analogy is very shaky. Communism as a belief system was shallowly held within its host nations. Islam is woven into the fabric of many nations. Do the “Islam-as-Ideology” folks really believe that all need to do is topple a couple of governments and everyone will throw away their prayer rugs and headscarves? Communism brooked no competitors. It very possible for a country to be both majority Muslim and secular. Political Islam (which is not the same as Islamic terrorism) is a force but suppressing it does not seem to be working. What it offers (identity, pride, order) must be taken seriously much as what communism and socialism offer (justice, equity, material development for all) must be taken seriously. As George Box famously almost said: All models are wrong, some are useful. This model is not useful.

Some housekeeping:

  • Are you a communist? A. No.
  • Are you a leftie? A. Yip.
  • Are you a Muslim? A. Nope. I am an atheist.
  • Do you think all criticisms of Islam are invalid? A. No. I think many criticisms of it are valid. I am suspicious of the particular point of view I outline above.
  • You constantly bug people to provide data – where is the data here? A. This is a rant. I needed to get it off my chest. I may pull together some data later.
  • Is all of this true? A. Some of it is probably bollocks. That doesn’t seem to stop anyone else so I don’t see why it should stop me.
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Disjointed responses

Neoreaction: A Basilisk – Philip Sandifer

What follows is not so much a review as a series of disjointed responses. It’s not going to do much good under the book on Amazon. It is personal. There is some stuff to process here and this is indulgent. And if you can’t be indulgent on a blog, then where can you be indulgent?

First of all, I’ve been reading Dr Sandifer’s blog for a smidge over 4 years. He used to write essays on Doctor Who – a show that I’d loved as a child before it got cancelled and I hit peak puberty (these two events happened at roughly the same time although there is no causal connection in either direction). Sandifer’s essays are mostly a delight. He has a rare gift for combining the close reading of texts with an appreciation of the wider cultural and social milieu in which they operate. Sometimes he went into overtly experimental territory such as the combination of Borges and Choose Your Adventure that was his meditation on Logopolis. Plus some scathing takedowns of stories that offend him (e.g. The Celestial Toymaker). I’m not part of the broader Dr Who fandom so I’m not invested in these battles but I share some of his aesthetic and political tastes. In general I preferred the pieces that went to the edge of experimentation without going full avant garde while also finding something positive in the source material. Sledging is like a chocolate bar – fun for a bit but unpleasant in large quantities. My interest in the rest of his work is largely predicated in my fondness for the underlying source material – from The Last War In Albion on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (cool!) to Proverbs of Hell on Hannibal (meh).

Meanwhile, I first encountered the Neoreactionaries in 2015. The trailer for the new Star Wars movies had been released and I was pondering my son’s Lego X-Wing. I recall searching for Yarvin – as in Yarvin 4 (the moon featured at the climax of the first movie) – and getting a bunch of articles about some right wing dude who was into monarchs. This would be Curtis Yarvin aka Mencius Moldbug. I looked at his blog. There were a lot of words. So many words and so little sense. There were articles about this odd little scene of technologists into monarchy with side orders of racism and misogyny. And among them was a familiar name – Nick Land.

Rewinding even further back to the mid-90s, I was reading a lot of “cybertheory” – trying to fit together my personal interest in the internet, my professional interests as an information manager and my academic background in the history and sociology of science. There was a lot of enthusiastic shouting (yes, Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, I mean you). There was some lefty skepticism (Richard Barbrook). And then there was CCRU. Again I don’t recall when I became fully conscious of them as an entity. It would have been after my single year as a Warwick University employee and before I attended some of the events they ran in Vauxhall in 1999. A mix of performance art, DJing, speeches, discussions – mystifying and sometimes a bit half-assed. I didn’t really get what they were trying to do – the lumps of French theory, and music, and science fiction, and Cabbalistic magic all stitched together. The events seemed to be put on for themselves and when others turned up they didn’t really know what to do with them. Like they’d collectively lost the ability to relate to those outside the world that they had created. That’s not entirely fair – I recall Steve Goodman interacting occasionally – and also a guy called Rob who talked a bit.

Land was there – less a leader than a focal point. Mark Fisher had obvious charisma even then. I read their work voraciously. While Sadie Plant’s work was relatively accessible, Land’s was… fucked. There’s really no other word to describe it. His one book (The Thirst for Annihilation) was memorable as well as being occasionally ridiculous. A quite deliberate mess. His subsequent articles were more contained and some great lines (“Cyberspace Anarchitecture as Jungle-War” being one that I used in my information architecture work). But they weren’t so much advancing arguments as attempts to trigger moods and emotional responses. Apocalyptic. Millennial. A world collapsing. Not very 90s at all.

In hindsight the things that had fueled them through the second half of the 90s – jungle music, the first wave of the world wide web are as a transformative technology – were on the verge of dying. If not, dying then certainly changing into something else unrecognizable. CCRU dissolved into the wider culture. Steve Goodman set up Hyperdub (first an online zine then a record label). The early attempts at “Death Garage” were clumsy but they gradually flowered into the dense vegetation of post-Jungle dubstep, reaching a zenith (or perhaps a nadir given the scene’s obsession with low end bass) when they released Burial’s two albums (Goodman’s own Kode9 releases were pretty good as well).

Mark Fisher wrote the K-Punk blog during the 00s. Initially I was non-plussed. Writing about Kubrick and The Fall, he seemed to have turned his back on the futuristic modernism of the CCRU work to explore the lost futures of that time between the end of World War 2 and the neo-liberal 80s. Over time I came to appreciate the nature of his work – his attempts at salvaging these lost visions. A network of blogs emerged during these years – often with a focus on dubstep and other musical movements but also politics, culture, history. Fisher’s writing career gained new prominence with Capitalist Realism – a more direct engagement with contemporary politics than previously. He faded from view after Ghosts Of My Life in 2014. Then in January 2017, he was dead. I miss his writing. The internet of the 00s of which he was part also seemed to be dead with him.

Meanwhile, Land had faded from view by the middle of the 00s. He seemed a figure of the 90s who had failed to find relevance in the new world. He left the UK for Shanghai. And then, all of a sudden, he was a figure of note in a right-wing anti-democratic internet subculture. This wasn’t that surprising. While his pre-2007 writings were not explicitly fascist (and certainly not conservative) his biggest enemies in the 90s were left-wing humanities academics. He never showed any public interest in concrete political programs. The focus always was transgression. The Thirst for Annihilation is saturated with provocations designed to annoy his colleagues. While the discussions of Derrida and Heidegger would be of no interest to the denizens of 8Chan, the references to killing god and concentration camps would go down well. Land wants to be a very naughty boy.

The Neoreactionaries themselves seem to be a minor part of the Alt-Right stew – although their loathing of democracy and tolerance for racism and misogyny makes them easy allies of others in this world. They also have a link to the triumphalist end of Silicon Valley. Moldbug thought Steve Jobs should be CEO of California and their views find echoes in the public pronouncements of Peter Thiel (billionaire and former Trump fan). So while they are a niche within a niche, they are worthy of some attention.

Back to the book in hand. Neoreaction: A Basilisk (NAB) began as Kickstarter-funded essay that was published in mid-2016. A book version with additional essays came out in December 2017. A lot can happen in 18 months.

The original essay is a Rube Goldberg machine. Sandifer takes the work of Land and Moldbug as well as Eliezer Yudkowsky – and mixes in Eugene Thacker, Alan Turing, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Ligotti, and, above all, William Blake. Stylistically, it is closest to literary criticism, perhaps philosophy, not sociology or journalism. The early chapters outline the writing of his three literary antagonists (and antagonists they are) with different tones – a wary respect for Land, contempt for Moldbug, and something akin to pity for Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky is not a Neoreactionary but rather a minor member of the broader Silicon Valley tech milieu who is obsessed with “rationality” and artificial intelligence. Yudkowsky is also associated with the Basilisk of the title (Roko’s Basilisk) – an AI thought experiment. As the essay proceeds, the other writers are brought in to challenge and transform the positions of the core trio. Sandifer’s mode is to argue by association and insinuation. A series of offers are made. It is a mode of improvisation. To criticize its arguments seems a little beside the point. As with all improvised performances, the audience decides whether they buy into it or not. Personally, I switched off during the lengthy discussion of Blake’s mythology. Not that Blake is bad, I just don’t share Sandifer’s enthusiasm for Blake as a writer. Whereas many of the earlier improvisations in the essay provided insight – and if not insight, then entertainment.

The essay is not without its own provocations. First line: “Let us assume that we are fucked”. The world may be beyond saving. The tone is often one of mordant glee (the essay is explicit about its own aims to be a work a horror). Sandifer ends with a call for empathy between humans as a response to the dry domination proposed by the Neoreactionaries. It’s not a bad place to end (and his observations about his antagonists are largely correct) but the essay is much less about the ending than the journey. Perhaps the whole thing is not a basilisk but a different kind a monster – a shaggy dog. As for its purpose, it feels like an essay that Sandifer had to write to maintain sanity. It may get a broader audience but its focus on a niche within a niche and the hermetic pleasures of its text limit its ultimate impact. It is what it is.

There are thematic links but also a stylistic division between NAB and the other essays in the book. They tend to more straightforward – discussing phenomena such as Gamergate, TERFs, Austrian Economists or, er, David Icke. The breadth here is good but stylistic uncanny valley is noticeable. The Essay on Trump does find a new way of discussing an overdone topic (by rooting him in the physical geography of New York) while the final essay on Peter Thiel is a massive, angry denunciation of its subject. In many respects, I agree with Sandifer about Thiel but Sandifer is at his best with an antagonist he respects not one he merely wants to dismiss.

NAB and the essays around it push Sandifer from being a cultural commentator informed by politics to a political commentator informed by culture – shifting the balance in his Force (although he’d reject that distinction). While I have a bunch of different responses to NAB, I would definitely like to see where his pursuit of idiosyncratic, mixed up texts like this will lead.

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