We are used to thinking of our ideological divide as cleaving conservatives from liberals. I think the Republican Party’s collapse into incoherence reflects the fact that much of the modern right is reactionary, not conservative. This is what connects figures as disparate as Jordan Peterson and J.D. Vance and Peter Thiel and Donald Trump. These are the ideas that unite both the mainstream and the weirder figures of the so-called postliberal right, from Patrick Deneen to the writer Bronze Age Pervert. This is not a coalition that cares about tax cuts. It’s a coalition obsessed with where we went wrong: the weakness, the political correctness, the liberalism, the trigger warnings, the smug elites. It’s a coalition that believes we were once hard and have become soft; worse, we have come to lionize softness and punish hardness.
The story of the reactionary follows a template across time and place. It “begins with a happy, well-ordered state where people who know their place live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God,” Mark Lilla writes in his 2016 book, “The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.” He continues:
Then alien ideas promoted by intellectuals — writers, journalists, professors — challenge this harmony, and the will to maintain order weakens at the top. (The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story.) A false consciousness soon descends on the society as a whole as it willingly, even joyfully, heads for destruction. Only those who have preserved memories of the old ways see what is happening. Whether the society reverses direction or rushes to its doom depends entirely on their resistance.
The Silicon Valley cohort Andreessen belongs to has added a bit to this formula. In their story, the old way that is being lost is the appetite for risk and inequality and dominance that drives technology forward and betters human life. What the muscled ancients knew and what today’s flabby whingers have forgotten is that man must cultivate the strength and will to master nature, and other men, for the technological frontier to give way. But until now, you had to squint to see it, reading small-press books or following your way down into the meme holes that have become the preferred form of communication among this crew.
Now Andreessen has distilled the whole ideology to a procession of stark bullet points in his latest missive, the buzzy, bizarre “Techno-Optimist Manifesto.” I think it ill named. What makes it distinctive is not its views on technology, which are crude for a technologist of Andreessen’s stature. Rather, it’s the pairing of the reactionary’s sodden take on modern society with the futurist’s starry imagining of the bright tomorrow. So call it what it is: reactionary futurism.
Andreessen’s argument is simple: Technology is good. Very good. Those who stand in its way are bad. He is clear on who they are, in a section titled simply “The Enemy.” The list is long, ranging from “anti-greatness” to “statism” to “corruption” to “the ivory tower” to “cartels” to “bureaucracy” to “socialism” to “abstract theories” to anyone “disconnected from the real world … playing God with everyone else’s lives” (which arguably describes the kinds of technologists Andreessen is calling forth, but I digress). It ends — I kid you not — on a quotation from Nietzsche. “The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small.”
So who is it, exactly, who extinguishes the dancing star within the human soul?
Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades — against technology and against life — under varying names like “existential risk,” “sustainability,” “E.S.G.,” “sustainable development goals,” “social responsibility,” “stakeholder capitalism,” “precautionary principle,” “trust and safety,” “tech ethics,” “risk management,” “degrowth,” “the limits of growth.”
The enemy, in other words, is anything or anyone who might seek to yoke technology to social goals or structures, who would erect guardrails or impose limits on the John Galts of tomorrow.