Thoughts on Curtis Yarvin’s Clear Pill Part One

I am a newcomer to the thought of Curtis Yarvin (Mencius Moldbug). We will take up his five-part series in Claremont’s American Mind, “The Clear Pill,” one essay at a time. On one hand, the analysis that follows will be naïve or shortsighted, inasmuch as it will not have in view Moldbug’s hefty oeuvre; but, on the other hand, precisely because his body of work is not in view, I have no sentimental attachment to his earlier work, and I won’t have to make sure my analysis fits in with what I thought I had understood of his earlier work. We can read the “Clear Pill” on its own terms and merits.

The phrase that prefaces the essay is “One dose will erase your whole political mind.” We have taken scarcely a step into Yarvin’s thought, and we can already see that the stakes are enormous. We might wonder if this is even possible; and if possible, is it good? The first half of my essay will examine the means by which Yarvin plans to erase our political mind. The second half will consider whether or not such erasure is a good thing.

I. How to Erase a Political Mind

Yarvin tantalizes the reader by holding out the possibility of genuine mental liberation. He insists that we are in a kind of “reality dome”—not something stupid like the Truman Show, but, nonetheless, inside of a mere story that purports to tell the whole truth about the way things are.

How do we get out of the dome once we realize we are there? The method: “Here is one way to check out any idea you don’t want to believe: assume it’s true, then build a new reality around that axiom. Once you fail, you get to say: I can’t see how this could be true.” And further: “If you don’t see a hole in the dome, you stay in your present reality. Your failure is a contrapositive proof that either you were right, or your imagination was weak.” In other words, your imagination, coupled with the principle of non-contradiction is your ticket out of the dome and to knowledge of your ignorance about the world—(keep in mind though, that if your imagination is too weak, you may fool yourself).

Yarvin applies his method, essentially positing that we do not want to believe our stories are false; that they are merely “political formulas” that stabilize our regime. Constitutionalists want to believe that the government should be limited so that people can be protected and free. Progressives want to believe that government, if given enough power, gives life meaning by cleansing the world of all injustice with its purifying divine fire. His task, framed in his first installment, is to show “that each philosophy is objectively ineffective or counterproductive as the recipe for statesmanship it purports to be, since the outcomes of the actions it promotes do not tend to match their explicit purposes” and “Second: that each philosophy is objectively effective as a political formula for the present regime.” In other words, he will have to show that Constitutionalists don’t do anything that secures themselves genuine freedom; and that Progressives don’t do anything to meaningfully eliminate inequality/injustice; but, that both effectively stabilize our regime.

Yarvin’s essay is highly effective at making us feel like we are getting an inside look at how hollow and shallow our political life is. We beat up the “bad guys” in WWII—does this mean we are good? When we hear Progressives and Constitutionalists make alternative claims, we say: which story is true—not, is any of this true? Our civic institutions, the press, academia, philanthropic groups, etc, without taking cues from a centralized source, all magically agree with each other. Members of Congress don’t debate about contrasting visions of the good, and they bicker over whose lobbyists have written better bills (that only their staffers have actually read). In a sense, these are just some of the cracks in the “dome” that should cue us into the fact that our stories are not coherent. Yarvin identifies cracks that are common to all stories about the American regime as a way to set the stage for his more targeted attacks in future essays.

II. Is it Good to Erase Our Political Minds? (and, are the obstacles insuperable?)

One charming feature of Yarvin’s rhetoric early in the essay, is that he makes us think that taking the Clear Pill will be harmless: “This pill is neutral, tasteless unbelief…it contains no beliefs of its own, true or false.” We become politically neutral:

“To be neutral is to accept that you don’t understand present history. Neutrality is a sort of political atheism. Absence of political conviction implies abistence not only from political action, but ideally even from political desire—the thymos of the ancient Greeks…neutrality is just an intellectual divorce from whatever narrative you follow now…and no: you most certainly do not vote, or demonstrate, or agitate, or do anything like that. To be neutral is to be as useless as possible to all sides of all conflicts.”

The following questions and problems emerge for Yarvin’s project; I do not insist that he cannot or will not answer or address these in subsequent essays—but, I do insist that if he cannot, then, one should not endeavor to follow his political project (no, Yarvin is not politically neutral–see point 4 below).

  1. Yarvin claims that neutrality will render us useless. Fair enough. But, to those who are most deeply under the thrall of the present stories, those who are useless or neutral are dangerous. In Plato’s Republic, Adeimantus says that philosophers seem to be vicious AND useless. In the famous ship of state image, Socrates can only make the philosopher look decent when he presents politics at its lowest. Yarvin employs a similar rhetorical tack here. Should the politically neutral/useless employ a mask or rhetorical strategy?
  2. In a similar vein: Yarvin’s “reality dome” bears an unmistakable resemblance to the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. In the cave image, when Socrates imagines a philosopher going back down to the city after he has spent time outside of the cave, the people in the cave do two things: first they laugh at him. 2) Then they to try to kill him. The cave dwellers are dimly aware that something exists beyond their shadows, but they are still so deeply committed to their shadows/stories that they will kill those who try to puncture them. Famously, almost none of Socrates’ interlocutors become philosophers. Are most human beings sufficiently educable as to be able to swallow Yarvin’s Clear Pill?
  3. Near the beginning of his essay, Yarvin separates humans into two groups: the experts and serious on one hand, and, everyone else on the other. I.e., he recognizes deep seated inequality that matters when it comes to understanding the way things are. How many people does he expect to take the pill, and how many will receive the intended effect? In other words, is this a vulgar enlightenment project that assumes that everyone can be neutral or at least much more neutral than before, OR, is this is a pill for the elite so that they can organize society more effectively?
  4. Is neutrality really not its own story? I see how in some sense it is quite different from the standard stories in American life: the standard stories have chosen and emphasized some facts at the expense of infinitely many others, and think that what has been selected stands in for everything. Conversely, the neutral sees why it is tempting to organize facts, but, realizes that, we do not, and perhaps cannot, know enough to author stories that completely explain social reality. However, one wonders: what does the neutral do; doesn’t he still, wittingly or unwittingly look to something or some notion of what is good when he acts? That is, should he live a life of pleasure? Should he be gathering facts, reading science, history, and philosophy? Should he engage in a life of sun and steel? What is the order of rank among human activities? In other words: the neutral may enjoy being free from the stresses of having to make his actions comport with a story that is hopelessly incoherent and incomplete, but what next? Connect over the internet with the few others who share such a view? Or quietly envangelize the Clear Pill to normies? Is there any obligation to try to release our friends from the thrall of false stories? If there is any obligation at all like this that follows from taking the Clear Pill, then, the Clear Pill contains within it the seeds of a new story.
  5. Another way to put my key concern: it is very very easy to shit on American politics and modern life. Deconstruction is child’s play. Offering a genuine, plausible alternative, is the real challenge, the task of only the highest human types. Yarvin asks us to erase our political minds before he tells us what to expect on the other side; he sure as hell better know what he’s doing.  

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