Commentators have speculated a great deal about rumblings of far-right support under the surface of Silicon Valley’s saccharine liberal veneer, but what exactly lies at their roots?
In the early hours of 9 November 2016, whilst much of the world watched in disbelief at the election of a candidate wearing bigotry as a badge of electoral credibility, an obscure Silicon Valley computer programmer came to learn that the billionaire tech magnate with whom he was watching the events unfold, was “fully enlightened”.
The programmer was Curtis Yarvin, AKA “Mencius Moldbug”, an erstwhile blogger whose grandiose online musings in the late 2000s on the need to destroy progressive liberal democracy (or, as he liked to refer to it, the “Cathedral”) would play a role in the development of the white nationalist alt-right.
The billionaire was Peter Thiel, a tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, who declared in 2009 that he “no longer believe[d] freedom and democracy [were] compatible”, who has expressed his interest in “parabiosis” – a supposed means of forestalling ageing by injecting the blood of the young – and who has invested in 477 acres of New Zealand land, seemingly to jet off to in the case of an apocalyptic collapse of American society.
But what, in the San Franciscan mansion of a man who reportedly aided the President Elect’s vetting of new staff to the federal government did Yarvin conclude Thiel was enlightened about exactly?
Programmers for Patchwork
Commentators have speculated a great deal about rumblings of far-right support under the surface of Silicon Valley’s saccharine liberal veneer. This is not without some basis. For example, Mother Jones’ Josh Harkinson reported in 2017 that Andrew Anglin, of the neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer, had told him that “Santa Clara County, home to Apple and Intel, is his site’s largest traffic source”.
Of course, it is also important to maintain healthy scepticism about such claims by the far right since it is in their interest to inflate their size and influence. Moreover, few of these speculations have been accompanied by investigations of what exactly could lie at their roots.
The contingent of the contemporary far right that has gained particular association with Silicon Valley – and the tech community more broadly – is the “Neoreactionary” or “NRx”, subculture. This refers to a largely online, far-right political grouping that has taken shape since 2000 and which has played a role in the development of the white nationalist alt-right.
Emerging from a wider, largely apolitical, science and technology blogging community, Curtis Yarvin would publish a series of sprawling posts around which the NRx community coalesced. These (neo)reactionary bloggers saw that their views – be they on gender, race, religion, governance and much else – overlapped when it came to rejecting the progressive, liberal democratic consensus on these topics that has grown in the West following the Enlightenment.
As Yarvin’s output dwindled in the early-to-mid-2010s, the spread of his writing was catalysed thanks to the blogging of Nick Land, a former philosophy professor known in part for developing ideas in the 1990s around “accelerationism” that became in vogue with some on the left in recent years. In more recent times Land’s politics have veered to the far right, however. Writing for Viewpoint Magazine in 2017, US writer Shuja Haider described how, in 2012, Land “took it upon himself to systematize the Moldbug ideology, and […] christened it ‘The Dark Enlightenment.’”
His series of essays setting out the principles of NRx have become foundational to its canon. In addition to the term “Dark Enlightenment” catching on, Haider highlights that Land’s essays were useful precisely because, quoting early-NRx figure Michael Anissimov from his MoreRight blog in September 2013, “Very few of Moldbug’s fans have read anywhere near his entire corpus”.
Yet it does not take much familiarity with this corpus and its fans to see that they reserve most of their vitriol for democracy per se. In place of democratic nation states, they propose what they call “neocameralism”.
According to Land: “Neocameralism could be understood as “corporatist” and “dictatorial”. It treats the state as a corporation, founded upon freely alienable primary or sovereign property. It is “dictatorial” in the manner of all corporate control (i.e. run by stock-holders, not enfranchised customers, or by employees).”
He offers Hong Kong and Singapore as “approximate templates” for “neocameralism”. However, these competing states are not uniform in nature but rather a “patchwork” of competing states with differing ideological models.
Land claims “regime heterogeneity” is the preferred model, stating “If leftists have nowhere to go, the outcome will be suboptimal.” In this model, where individuals choose amongst competing states as they do their utilities supplier or bank, elections are deemed superfluous as productive and effective governments would self-legitimise or fail on the merit of their actions, just as a company does.
While there will supposedly be place for left-wing governance in this future patchwork of competing “neocameral” states, NRx supporters often envisage their utopian option as being a racist ethnostate or believe Yarvin’s neocameralism to offer the chance for a competition driven ethnopluralist future.
As the US writer Park MacDougald has noted, “All neoreactionaries reject “progressivism,” by which they mean democracy, egalitarianism, and a belief in more or less linear historical progress and even the non-white-supremacists tend towards a hereditarian determinism that bleeds easily into outright racism.”
A Matter of Convergence?
How then should the relationship between this niche far-right ideology and the world of ostensibly liberal Big Tech be understood?
A likely explanation is that, for the most part, any overlap is a product of ideological convergence, resulting from a pre-existing libertarianism prevalent within the tech community. As Klint Finley wrote for Techcrunch in 2013, though NRx is “a small, minority world view” within tech culture, it’s one that “shines some light on [its] psyche”.
The clearest connection to this psyche – and indeed the NRx community – is Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, an early Facebook investor and a co-founder of, among numerous other organisations, Palantir, a data analytics company used for US government surveillance.
Thiel has been the focal point of speculation about NRx/Silicon Valley links for two reasons. Firstly, his political positions have appeared to align at times with those of the NRx community, both in his criticisms of progressive politics and, more significantly, in his view that companies should be run in a manner that stops short of outright dictatorship.
In 2012, Thiel gave a series of lectures to students at Stanford University and Blake Masters, who attended the lectures and who went on to work for Thiel, published his notes online, paraphrasing Thiel as follows:
“A startup is basically structured as a monarchy. We don’t call it that, of course […] anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable. […] [But] Importantly, it isn’t an absolute dictatorship. […] pure dictatorship is unideal because you can’t attract anyone to come work for you. […] So the best arrangement is a quasi-mythological structure where you have a king-like founder who can do more than in a democratic ruler [sic] but who remains far from all-powerful.”
Thiel is talking specifically about startups here but the parallels with the NRx community’s preferred form of neocameralist governance discussed above are substantial, something that does not appear lost on him.
In 2011 Stanford Law School’s Mark Lemley interviewed Thiel after the entrepreneur taught a class at the university on the theme of “sovereignty, globalisation and technological change” (a class he reprised in 2018). Lemley notes that one of the questions discussed in the class was “Is there something analogous to starting a company and starting a country?”
The second reason Thiel has attracted so much attention is because he has been a serious investor in experiments in this simultaneously pro/anti-libertarian picture of ideal governance and with organisations with direct ties to the NRx community.
Most significant is his venture capital firm’s investment in Tlon, a company founded by Yarvin in 2013. Tlon focuses on an internet decentralising project called Urbit that Yarvin has been developing since 2002, the aim of which is to remove control of web services from major tech companies.
Another direct link comes through Thiel’s investment in the Seasteading Institute, an organisation that aims to build floating cities in the sea and which was founded by Patri Friedman, grandson of the influential libertarian Milton Friedman (“seasteading” is seen by some in the NRx community as a means of escaping liberal democratic states and implementing neocameralism, though it has enjoyed support otherwise within Silicon Valley).
In a January 2014 Facebook post, Patri Friedman stated that he was happy to discover “that Mencius is no longer an obscure single voice but has somehow managed to inspire an entire school of red pill political philosophy”. He added, however, that he was hoping to create “a more politically correct dark enlightenment [sic]” […] adding anti-racism and anti-sexism”.
Beyond these ties to NRx-inflected experiments, Thiel was linked to the NRx figure Michael Anissimov, by way of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI) where Anissimov worked from 2004 until 2013. Anissimov would go on to leave MIRI and self-publish a book in 2015 that argued multiculturalism had “made it difficult for intelligent Europeans to thrive in the United States”. An artificial intelligence research organisation, MIRI was founded in 2000 and Thiel was one of its earliest and largest donors.
The extent of Thiel’s ideological overlaps with NRx thinking more broadly are evident from his criticisms of progressive politics. Most notably, he co-wrote The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus in 1996 which criticised multicultural policies in universities and called date rape “belated regret”.
In October 2016 he apologised for the book’s “insensitive, crudely argued statements” in a statement to Forbes, adding that “Rape in all forms is a crime”. But, as Forbes’ Ryan Mac noted, Thiel did not say which specific statements were “crudely argued”, nor did he explicitly denounce his criticism of multicultural policies in education.
Thiel also founded the student paper The Stanford Review whilst a student at the same university in 1987. The publication argued that Stanford “should focus on “institutionalized liberalism” rather than [its] supposed ‘institutionalized racism”.”
Stanford Politics’ Andrew Granato reported that, during the after-party of the 30th anniversary for the Review, held at Thiel’s home, a former editor of the student paper had been told by Thiel that “his apology was just for the media, and that ‘sometimes you have to tell them what they want to hear.’”
Granato also reported that Thiel had told a former editor at the event that Yarvin was “interesting” but “crazy”, and he would “lecture you for an hour”. He adds that “the editor remembered that Thiel did offer to set up a meeting between Yarvin and [a current] Review staff member who asked about him”.
Thiel’s ideological roots are libertarian, and it appears that it is from this direction that his critique of multiculturalism in education – specifically the claim that it undermines intellectual rigour – arises. As he told vlogger Dave Rubin on his Rubin Report YouTube show in September 2018: “Diversity of ideas is to be valued, but you don’t have real diversity when you have people who look different and think alike […] The diversity myth is that it’s not about diversity at all. It’s about conformity.”
Of course, under the guise of protecting a “diversity of ideas”, it is possible for extreme positions to be given an equal platform. Thiel ventured into this territory in 2016 after it was revealed that he was due to speak at the annual meeting of the Property and Freedom Society (PFS) in Turkey.
The PFS was founded in 2006 by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, an influential right-wing libertarian academic who, in a speech to the PFS in 2017 on “Libertarianism and the Alt-Right”, declared that “restrictive, highly selective and discriminating immigration […] is entirely compatible with libertarianism and its desideratum of freedom of association and opposition to forced integration”.
Thiel’s name was removed from the list of speakers after it was announced that he was due to speak and a spokesperson stated that he would not be attending the event. Nonetheless, that Thiel was down to speak at meeting of a society which had previously hosted far-right thinkers like Peter Brimelow, John Derbyshire, Tomislav Sunic, Jared Taylor, Richard Spencer and Paul Gottfried is worrying.
That well-known figures like Thiel could come into contact with fringe ideas like NRx is less bizarre when one takes into account the history of the San Francisco Bay Area where Silicon Valley is situated.
As Julia Galef, a co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), which has ties to the aforementioned MIRI, explained in a post to the Less Wrong blog in September 2013: “The Bay Area is unusually dense with idea-driven subcultures that mix and cross-pollinate in fascinating ways, many of which are already enriching rationalist culture”.
Prior to his personal blogging, Yarvin had already been a contributor to the preexisting and occasionally overlapping “rationalist” community to which Galef refers, sometimes referred to in its online manifestation as the “Rationalist Sphere”. This community of bloggers is concerned with various topics but centres around a deep interest in rationality, cognitive science and technology and has been associated with blogs such as Overcoming Bias, Slate Star Codex and the aforementioned Less Wrong.
Despite this, NRx seems to remain largely at arm’s length from most in Silicon Valley, appearing to be known of by elements of the latter and sometimes an ideology of interest to them and so is tolerated if not accepted.
Yarvin, for example, was disinvited from the 2009 Seasteading Institute annual conference after complaints from a fellow invited speaker about the content of his blog, though, in a statement, the Institute cited the “gratuitous personal attacks” made by Yarvin towards a speaker as the basis of the disinvitation rather than his extreme writing. Indeed, they write with regret, there “are so few political theorists on competitive government that we must admit to some sadness at such a conflict manifesting”.
Aside from open support for Urbit, Yarvin’s acceptance by Silicon Valley remains somewhat ambiguous. Tweeting in January 2018, Thiel associate Eric Weinstein, who coined the phrase “Intellectual Dark Web” in 2018 to describe a network of high-profile, contrarian right-wing and libertarian figures in the public eye, said that he and Yarvin “ran into each other at a dinner” and joked about their respective movement’s names.
Given the role the Rationalist community played in creating NRx, greater insight into this ambiguous relationship is revealed by the annual surveys the Less Wrong blog has carried out on its visitors. In 2009, two years after Yarvin had begun blogging, the survey did not provide much insight into this nascent far right community, specifying only that “conservatives” were a minority of 6/166 respondents.
Yet, by 2011, respondents to the survey were curious to know whether any in the community were influenced by Yarvin. In 2012, there was much greater clarity, with 30/1195 respondents claiming to be “Reactionary” and nineteen specifically identifying as “Moldbuggian”.
The following year, 40/1636 respondents were “Reactionary” and, in 2014, 29/1503 identified as “Neoreactionary”. From the 2016 survey, which appears to be the most recent at the time of writing, just 28/3060 identified as “Neoreactionary”. Nonetheless, 112 respondents claimed that the site was “Too tolerant of Neoreaction”.
What is evident from these surveys is that the NRx community, insofar as it overlaps with Silicon Valley and the tech world beyond (almost a third of the 2016 respondents worked in academic or practical computing occupations), has been and remains a somewhat tolerated fringe contingent.
What may have allowed it to remain so is precisely that enough NRx adherents – at least in its early stages – were part of the tech community already. Moreover, away from the apocalyptic libertarianism of NRx that might attract the likes of Thiel, many of Silicon Valley’s moderate libertarians and liberal-left share with much of the NRx community a deep conviction about technology’s capacity to act as a panacea for society’s ills, a belief in radical alternatives to the current political system, and a commitment to an acutely rationalist worldview.
Where they differ, of course, is with regard to what they want society to become. In contrast to the reactionary, “Dark” enlightenment encouraged by the likes of Yarvin, the liberal tech-utopians of Silicon Valley see themselves – however sometimes inaccurately – as continuing many Enlightenment ideals.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky, founder of the aforementioned Less Wrong blog, told Harpers magazine in 2015: “We’re part of the continuation of the Enlightenment, the Old Enlightenment. This is the New Enlightenment,” he said. “Old project’s finished. We actually have science now, now we have the next part of the Enlightenment project.”