In his new project, The Gray Mirror of the Nihilist Prince, Curtis Yarvin says that, at the present moment, everyone is either a collaborator or a dissident. Some possess and use power and others seek to dispossess those with power in order to claim it for themselves. Everyone, so to speak, is engaged. His key questions: is there a way out of this dichotomous conflict? Can we turn the whole thing off?
The disposition that Moldbug sees as indispensable for escaping the current contest for power is one of detachment. In one way or another, this is a theme that Moldbug has always been intensely interested in. In Unqualified Reservations, detachment seems to be latent in what he calls political sanity or non-idealism. His key concern was liberating readers from a pernicious attachment to mysterious universals like Democracy and Equality. To turn away from democracy and equality was to be “red pilled.”
UR points to the necessity of trying to rip out the Borg implants that constantly shoot the Whig (progressive) view of history into our blood stream. To state the obvious, it was a right-wing blog. To be on the Right is to take a side, to be against the Left–not just to understand the Left, but to see it as an enemy. Red-pilling makes one passionate and if one becomes dominated by this passion, he will inevitably make mistakes when he observes the world, since he will be motivated to see the world in the terms dictated by his “team.” To be on a team entails telling stories that describe this team as noble and good while claiming that the other team is vicious and bad.
Enter the Clear Pill–tasteless unbelief. This is the chill pill; it drains you of passion, and allows you to see the world as it is, to the extent that this is possible (and Yarvin admits there is a LOT we can’t know). This is a step away from the red pill. Yarvin meant to show, in his unfinished series, how progressivism, constitutionalism, and fascism all rely on destabilizing lies that activate thymos (what he says is the desire to matter or to be important), albeit, in differing ways. They all count on people believing in ideals, and these ideals are always at risk of running into conflict with good governance. The ideals, or those under their thrall, will inevitably make a policy that promotes progress, reverence for the founding, or love of the nation, at the expense of doing what is best. In other words, there are always cracks in the stories that are projected onto the reality dome walls. Yarvin wonders if it is possible to think beyond or outside of ideology altogether. To put this another way: can political life function without the noble lies that Plato thought were required in even the best conceivable regime?
The Rub: Conflicting Modes of Detachment
In GM, Yarvin describes two kinds of detachment and I don’t think that they fit together–or, at any rate, he needs to do more to show how they fit together. First, I’ll put it in Yarvin’s words, then I will try to elaborate.
A) “Detachment is a hard spiritual task in which no one can succeed perfectly. It is not a fact or even an idea. Detachment, like Zen, is a practice.”
B) “A pure subject has no emotional relationship with power. Power demands nothing but physical compliance. Minimal compliance is nonaggression plus taxation: le libertarian paradise. While real history was never so pure, this abstraction is a normal civilized condition that we can call natural detachment.”
These are both from GM #1 and the italics are Yarvin’s. Can you see the difference? In the first case one intentionally takes on a difficult spiritual task. Common sense would dictate that only the few, the excellent, are capable of hard spiritual tasks. The second case, natural detachment, is different. It is natural and without effort, achieved by anyone living in pre-civilized regimes. It is a detachment that is possible for the many.
Let me try to put the contradiction differently, using examples that Yarvin provides in the Unregistered interview.
1) Philosophic historian detachment. He says in the Unregistered interview that it would be weird if a historian wrote a book about the War of the Roses and was passionately partisan; we would think that he was a weirdo. Yarvin seems to counsel that we obtain this level of detachment in real time. It is not clear that this is possible for most people. I.e., this kind of detachment is reserved for Thucydides. This detachment flows out of a deep vision and acceptance that all peoples pass away. Thucydides imagines what the ruins of Athens and Sparta will look like to future observers. Or think of Nietzsche’s statement that there are heights from which the tragic ceases to look tragic. Or Socrates saying that philosophy is learning how to die–meaning that a core task of philosophy is reconciling oneself to one’s mortal condition. This is a standpoint reserved for the few.
2) Peasant/hedonic narrow vision detachment. Yarvin’s other example from the interview is this: when you travel to a South American country, you don’t care about voting there, you don’t want political power, you don’t strive for influence. Rather, you just want to be safe, have fun, and just generally avoid anything painful. Yarvin suggests that this is how we should feel about our own country. You don’t need deep vision to want to have a safe and pleasant time. This seems to me to something that is more achievable for the many.
Is this contradiction resolvable? Maybe. Presumably, Moldbug writes for the few. Most people find themselves too feeble or too constrained by contemporary standards of respectability to read and take his thought seriously. Only someone who already has some distance from these standards will have the ears to hear Yarvin. Perhaps, at the crucial moment of collapse or near collapse, these types will be in a position, with their nice regime textbook, to provide the kind of governance that Yarvin will articulate in detail in subsequent installments. At this point, the many who are more disposed to natural detachment will fall in line. This is the only way to reconcile the two detachments; for, as Yarvin points out, the person who is detached does not try to change public opinion, indeed, he does not try to change the world at all.
Can Care and Detachment be Reconciled?
But can Yarvin really claim to be detached? Isn’t someone writing a textbook for how to properly rule, someone who is engaged? To put this another way, or to raise another Platonic question, why would the detached person want to rule at all? In the Republic, philosophers are compelled to rule. Admittedly, in the Hermitix interview, Yarvin claimed that he does not want to rule…fine. But why spend so much time thinking about how to do it? I think that Yarvin cares a lot about humans, and wants to help them live in a better world (i.e., consider the tears he shed near the beginning of the “Leather Jacket” interview). How does he reconcile his idea of detachment with his deep care and concern for others? That is, he seems moved by his awareness that most governments today do a bad job providing good things for their citizens; Moldbug wants to re-design government so that it can deliver on its promise of benefiting the citizens it rules over. It is crucial to point out that the disposition of caring for others is a very different disposition than detachment, indeed, it is directly opposed. Our attachment to others or wish to care for them, can sometimes come into conflict with coolheaded detachment or sobriety. Yarvin must show how this concern for others is compatible with detachment.