Populism in Western politics is not a pre-theorized worldview. It emerged from rudimentary grievances rather than existing ideologies, and theorists have been pursuing it ever since.
The pursuers include potential friends of populism, intellectuals trying to graft agendas on Trumpism or Brexit or whatever is happening in Italy or France. But the critics of populism are also always on the hunt, eager to find some black wizard, some gray eminence whose ideas can give substance to their fears.
In recent years, this research has made a mico-celebrity of Curtis Yarvin, a programmer who spent years writing abstruse critiques of modern liberalism under the web name “Mencius Moldbug,” before emerging from mid to the late 2010s as part of a larger cast of Silicon Valley reactionaries.
Unlike other figures in this troupe, Yarvin does not need to be caricatured to pass him off as an enemy of liberal democracy. He is convinced that the current order – in his eyes, an oligarchy ruled by a complex of elite institutions (like this newspaper) which he calls “the cathedral” – should be overthrown and replaced by a monarchy of the digital age, a king-CEO
In Yarvin’s profiles, whether hostile or curious, you can see the profiler struggling to tie this worldview to normal political debates. With enough work, you can interpret the chaos of January 6 as a proto-monarchist gamble. Alternatively, you can take any of Yarvin’s insights and read him as the advocate for a more imperial-than-usual president, a right-wing Franklin Roosevelt. But either interpretation leaves a gap between his radical imagination and actual American politics.
Perhaps, however, Yarvin should not be read primarily as a theorist of American political realities. Rather, in keeping with his roots in the tech industry, he’s a virtual reality theorist, and his argument for monarchy is really about how best to govern emerging social media principalities.
I thought of this while watching Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (which Yarvin has a lot to say about). In some ways, what’s happening is capitalism as usual: the new CEO is firing the old guard, looking for new revenue streams, etc.
But in other ways, the takeover is more like a pre-modern political struggle – a clash between ecclesiastical and monarchical authority, between clerics and a king.
Musk claims to want Twitter to serve as a digital public square. But that looks like a category error: Social Media understand aspects of a city square experience, but fundamentally it’s a larger parallel reality, a prototype of the immersive virtual world that Mark Zuckerberg has so far failed to build. It’s a place where people form communities and alliances, maintain friendships and sex, shout and flirt, clap and pray. And all of this is happening on a transnational scale, with the system spreading across borders while monitoring who can cross its own.
So there’s a sense in which Twitter is a new kind of politics, a place that people don’t just visit but inhabit. And for a political regime, it is crucial to know who sets the rules of citizenship, who is banished or ostracized or thrown into the prison of Twitter. The angry and enthusiastic reactions to Musk’s takeover resemble the angry and enthusiastic reactions to presidential races because in both cases the change in leadership really affects the way people live their daily lives.
With the crucial difference, however, that no one yet has a convincing idea of what a social media democracy would look like. So instead of electoral choices, the options are governance of the type that Twitter used to have, with a clerical class enforcing rules and norms in a somewhat opaque way, based on current progressive theology, or the personalized governance it now has, with Tsar Elon I granting amnesties as explaining that Alex Jones will forever remain exiled because the Tsar has personal reasons to hate anyone who exploits the deaths of children.
If that is the choice, theories of monarchy and oligarchy are extremely relevant to virtual politics, even if they are overextended as theories of the real-world American republic. This applies to both Marxist theory and Yarvin’s reactionary analysis: just as his progressive “cathedral” can potentially wield greater power over Twitter than over America, so can a right-wing billionaire or a “boss” class can more plausibly dominate a virtual community. policy than a real one.
There is also a dynamic relationship between virtual power and real-world politics. But we don’t yet know where it will go. Will the metaverse grow to a point where it matters more who rules the social media realms than who occupies the White House? Will reality have its revenge, submitting the virtual sphere to democratic authority, regulating its medieval politics?
For now, watching Musk rule by fiat, all we can say for sure is that (pending the revenue issues that always baffle monarchs) it’s good to be king.