Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

Curtis Yarvin’s “philosophy”

February 22 2021

As a contrarian political philosopher, I generally try to keep apprised of other contrarian philosophies, to see if there might be something interesting I’ve failed to consider. Ergo I have an interest in principle at looking over the work of Curtis Yarvin, otherwise known as “Mencius Moldbug.” But while he’s been on the scene since around 2007, I never figured out what he was really about, because if you’re trying to grasp the basic architecture of his political philosophy you need to wade through a lot of verbiage, some intended to mislead. Such barrier is actually intentional on his part: he owns that he doesn’t want the unwashed masses reading his material.

Such is the nature of his personality. I don’t want to dwell on that here. While I think it’s easy to refute his particular brand of anarcho-capitalism (perhaps that’s the real reason he buries it in a mountain of verbiage), it’s not as if everything he writes is so easily discounted or dismissed. He has some interesting and entertaining things to say.

My purpose here is simply to articulate and refute his specific political philosophy. He didn’t explain it concisely, so I’ll do that here. I draw my conclusions from a single 2008 book of his, PATCHWORK: A POLITICAL SYSTEM FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. I’d generously estimate that this book is about 95% critique and 5% positive political philosophy – in this regard he’s more a clever nihilist-entertainer than creative philosopher (again, I will refrain here from remarking on his thoughtful institutional critiques).

Indeed, he rejects political philosophy at its root, which is itself the root of his folly. Yarvin’s central fallacy is that he rejects the ideal of rational philosophy – while using an apparently rational process of furthering his own agenda. This is intrinsically irrational and therefore would only lead to disaster if his advice were actually taken, some form of “dangerous amoral fools handed the reins of supreme executive power.” As they say: history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes.

The sad part is that he’s actually tripped over something that grossly resembles the correct solution: the federation of city-states. Except that his is a cardboard imitation of this ideal, colored with crayons.

My own philosophy culminates in the general federation of city-states model, wherein the federal level is charged with defending universal, inalienable, individual, natural rights, and the city-state implements a potentially rich variety of consent-based systems. On my view, such model arises naturally out of rational philosophy, starting with basic rational axioms and epistemological principles, developing a rational system of ethics, rights, and eventually proving that the federation of city-states model is the one that fits within that system of rationality. It takes a short book to tour the logical links from start to finish.

Yarvin’s idea is vastly simpler. He begins by dismissing political philosophy and substituting it for the equation that political power should be bound to financial power, since financial power and moral rectitude (allegedly) arises naturally out of brute financial competence (in this regard, Yarvin is the ultimate logical culmination and condensed essence of right-libertarian theory – ergo his popularity with that tribe). Regarding the substance of the rules by which we would all be bound, we need not worry our pretty little heads about what they are or how they are arrived at, because we can simply trust our feudal overlords. Even while this description sounds and is ludicrous on its face, I don’t think I exaggerate. (Ergo the need to bury the trivial and farcical idea under a mountain of verbiage?)

More specifically, his simple formula is:

  1. Each city-state shall be owned by stockholders. Ideally these are non-citizens, and are in the operation solely for the sake of profit. The sole business duty of these stockholders is to select a “Delegate” via an encryption technology (the last detail is interesting but beside the philosophical point here).
  2. The Delegate has sovereign total authority in the city-state, subject only to being fired and replaced by the stockholders. In principle he has authority even including the power to unilaterally and at will break contracts, imprison, enslave, or commit genocide, but Yarvin expects they would actually tend to be a “benevolent dictator,” since being a brutal dictator would, he alleges, tend to be unprofitable. He also imagines that we’d generally be free to leave one city-state and join another, taking our property with us. But in principle, his idea specifically denies such right; at best he’d consider it as creating a marketing problem if the city-state did not respect such terms and so predicts they’d be mostly respected.
  3. City-states governed by allegedly “rational” Delegates would form “temporary” alliances and rules created by committee to govern their external affairs. No mention is made of how city-states would adjudicate disputes between each other, because as a matter of principle, Yarvin refuses to bind the Delegates to any rules except that they can be fired by the stockholders. Given such lack of rules, the assertion that these alliances are “temporary” is meaningless; nothing stops the Delegates from conspiring to form yet another empire.

I don’t think this is mere concise summary of his political idea, with sophisticated implied and underlying ideas that need to be grappled with if you want the full picture – I think this is the whole of it. No principles, no arguments, no philosophy, no muss no fuss – just a simple prescription for our total submission to and domination by corporate overlords. Despite the fancy and lengthy rhetoric on his part, at its core this is the ultimate McDonald’s of political philosophy – really simple and easy to understand, nothing subtle whatsoever, designed for the masses to swallow whole and without question.

No mention is given to where these stockholders originally arise from, but it seems clear that they arise from the wealthy class in our own system. I.e., what Yarvin advocates is a ruthlessly precise and simple formula for cementing the current economic status quo.

Am I being fair? Are there really no principles or arguments there? Consider this rhetoric:

Nonetheless, in moral terms, we may ask: why does this realm hold that patch? And the answer, as it always is with in any system of strong property rights, will be not “because it deserves to,” but “because it does.”

Yarvin is very consistent and explicit: he thinks might makes right. And if might makes right, what is the point of any argument? Philosophical arguments are for plebs; real men take what they want and claim what they want. He wouldn’t deign to argue his point – and even if he would, the point is unarguable; his role is only to ridicule those who would. He labels such people “progressives,” but his notion of “progressive” includes anyone who thinks that man should strive toward Aristotle’s vision of man as “the rational animal.”

Since he gives us no argument for his view, there’s nothing really to do other than note that and move on. Paine is apt:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead …”

— Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

Qua nihilist, Yarvin’s role is mainly negative: he offers you a point of view of what is wrong about the status quo. I am not going to attempt to explain what about his view of history or his social critiques are legitimate or illegitimate, I would only advise that when reading him that you’re at least as critical of him as he is of society, and bear in mind that he has offered no real positive alternative, just a fake cardboard one. You can know it’s fake because he offers no rational justification of it; indeed, demolishing the very idea of rational justification is the central part of his nihilism. Perhaps, being incapable of providing rational justifications himself, he seeks to destroy the very idea that anyone else can either. In any case, bear in mind Hume’s wisdom:

“I must confess that a man is guilty of unpardonable arrogance who concludes, because an argument has escaped his own investigation, that therefore it does not really exist.”

— David Hume

“[A] Philosopher who affects to doubt of the Maxims of common Reason, and even of his Senses, declares sufficiently that he is not in earnest, and that he intends not to advance an Opinion which he would recommend as Standards of Judgment and Action.”

— David Hume

At his core, Yarvin is an authoritarian and boldly admits it. His problem with society is only in who now gets to exercise arbitrary authority, not the existence of arbitrary authority per se. In contrast, a rational person seeks to create a system of legitimate authority, which means rationally justifiable, which means transparent and founded upon universal rational principle exemplified in a just rule of law. On Yarvin’s view, truth, goodness, and justice are all fiction. Only power is real, where the supreme law is the law of the jungle. Ultimately, such will appeal only to those who think they can win contests of brutality or to their toadies.