Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, was removed from the National Security Council in early April. Among the Kremlinologists who watch the Trump White House, this has been interpreted as a setback for the man whose neo-reactionary philosophy provides the guiding principles of Trumpism: Islamophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and excited anticipation of a new American revolution. But Bannon’s ousting has also been called a disguised promotion, as he is restored to his proper role of the mostly unseen puppet-master.
In the first part of this article in last month’s issue, I put Bannon in the context of the alt-right and drew the connections between him, Gamergate, Milo Yiannopoulos, 4chan and Alexander Dugin. Here I want to continue this profile of Bannon by looking at his political philosophy.
Bannon subscribes to an esoteric version of history known as the ‘Fourth Turning’. Developed by amateur historians William Strauss and Neil Howe in the 1990s, the Fourth Turning applies the logic of cyclical history to the United States. Each turning represents a distinctive atmosphere that dominates a generation. Or better yet, to borrow a phrase from ‘True Detective’, a psychosphere, encompassing the social field of possibilities.
In the first turning, following a period of crisis, the atmosphere is one of societal confidence built on a strong state and positively repressed individualism, known as “The High”. For Strauss and Howe, this period ran from the end of World War II to the Kennedy assassination in 1963. This is the era of the Greatest Generation and profound optimism in the American Dream.
This turning was followed by “The Awakening”, where the state-individual relation was inverted. Characterised by a dismantling of the social order and the pursuit of individual autonomy, it descended, over time, into generalised confusion as society splintered. It ran up until the 1980s, and was followed by “The Unravelling” where individualism became unfettered to such an extent that societal ties became exceptionally weak. Then follows the final stage, the one Bannon believes we are entering, of “The Crisis,” where conditions require a radical re-assertion of the collective.
One may wonder what the crisis was that shifted us into the Crisis. For Bannon the financial crisis of 2008 marked the moment when the individualism of the baby boomers was revealed in its full consequence: a stolen future. This is how he couches his vision when speaking to older conservative audiences, requiring that they own up to their failure and then pointing toward the rise, in line with Strauss and Howe, of a robust Millennial generation that will blast through the Crisis to get to the next High.
Bannon has in mind a quite specific segment of the Millennial generation: the pick-up artists, the meme-warriors of Twitter and 4chan, and the campus-touring Milo enthusiasts. It also includes the Chad nationalists, a group of “norms” who might not explicitly position themselves on the political spectrum, but tend to be on the right. Did Chad vote for Trump? It’s implicit in his name, like some kind of metaphysical property. And it means Chad’s dad and his girlfriend and his fraternity did too.
These people will quietly act to maintain Americanism, but not necessarily in a militant way. The decision might not always be theirs, however, as central to Bannon’s vision is an existential confrontation with Islam that will radicalise the entire Millennial generation away from individualism and back toward statism, since only a strong state could win such a battle. For Bannon, there is a multi-faceted project to accomplish. The State in its current decadent baby-boomer form must be dismantled. Yet this “deconstruction” (his own term) is simply a prelude to a complete regeneration of the society to be accomplished through total war. On this point, we find ourselves hoping that Trump’s personality will prove sufficiently resistant to Bannon’s apocalypticism. Some say it is General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Secretary of Defense, who will be the greatest obstacle to Bannon’s vision. Surely this makes Mattis the world’s most unlikely dove.
Maybe you know all this. You have heard about Bannon the puppeteer and the raw onslaught the alt-right has engaged Western culture with. Yet the story is even murkier. Alongside the alt-right exists another position, neoreaction, and it as close as this spectrum has to a philosophical system. Trumpist populism and Bannonesque esotericism are no doubt in the ascendant, but they are always threatened by their innate anarchism. There is a sense that the game might implode, that equilibrium could be restored, that a counter-populist movement might render Trump’s reign an aberration.
Neoreaction, in contrast, is content to abide its time. Developed by the elusive Curtis Yarvin, under the penname Mencius Moldbug, neoreaction binds a disdain for stagnated democratic politics with a cold formalist system of neo-monarchism. Given the inefficiencies of democracy, only a strong leader, fully free to implement a political programme, can steady the ship. Neoreaction sees itself as an antidote to the Whiggish misreading of history that traces a continuous record of human progress. Instead of the Enlightenment, neoreaction ushers in the Dark Enlightenment.
The most consistent formulation of the Dark Enlightenment comes not from Moldbug, but from the British philosopher Nick Land. Land has a storied history, emerging as one of the most exciting Continental philosophers in the 1990s before abandoning academia and the west for a freelance writing career in Shanghai. Throughout, he served as an intellectual lightning rod for the hugely diverse spectrum of alt-right and neoreactionary ideas. This has involved him extolling the virtues of cryptocurrencies, human biodiversity, and singularitarianism (space prevents me from developing these), but his most important contribution, is his emphasis on the all-too-easily overlooked libertarian concept of exit.
In the 1970s and 1980s, libertarians became split over whether to enter representational politics. The ‘entryist’ wing established the Libertarian Party in the United Sates as a means to introduce the idea of libertarianism into mainstream politics and out of obscurity; similar parties have cropped up in other countries. The American party was eventually bought out by the wealthy Koch Brothers, who pitched a bid for the presidency in 1980, but eventually gained a foothold in the Republican Party. Ron Paul long acted as the libertarian conscience in presidential debates, never expecting to win, but at least influencing the debate (the act is now performed by his son, Rand).
Yet not all libertarians believed that entryism was the best method. Rather than gain a ‘voice’ in democratic politics they would seek an exit from it. This concept of exit over voice is expressed in numerous proposals: isolated communes, seasteading (living on ships at sea), space colonisation, and perhaps most successfully, by developing a digital frontier. Land in particular praises this cyber-libertarian politics for its pragmatic ability to implement exit.
The most successful cyber-libertarians have been the cypherpunks. Originally a small group of privacy-conscious hackers, the cypherpunks planted the seed for the development of a digital currency, known as Bitcoin, that has allowed a large number of libertarians to opt out, within constraints, from state-backed finance. Bitcoin also acted as the bedrock for the emergence of darknet marketplaces, such as the infamous Silk Road, where illicit goods could be traded outside the gaze of the state. There is no denying, however, that these new, ungovernable worlds are only proto-libertarian, in as much as they do not bleed out into the ‘real’ world.
At least, that’s how it seemed until just a couple years ago, when libertarians noticed a strange new phenomenon. Their word, exit, was entering the debate on the future of the European Union.
In a European context, the very concept of exit seems startling. And yet, that far more integrated union of states, the United States, has been haunted by the same concept, under the name of secession, almost since the very start. Since the Civil War of the 1860s, secessionism has taken the form of threats from the defeated South to dissolve the union. A more modern variation on the theme has been the possibility of Californian exit. The Californian strain, which blends technological religiosity and libertarianism elitism, has its spiritual capital in Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley is also, of course, the natural territory of PayPal founder Peter Thiel. An ambitious, driven and preternaturally gifted entrepreneur, Thiel is the perfect embodiment of this culture. His contrarian streak ante-dates his relatively recent alliance with Trump. As far back as 1999, Thiel co-authored, with David O Sacks, ‘The Diversity Myth’, a book that may have seemed a little radical at the time, but would likely earn him a campus ban these days, if students were aware it existed. Lambasting the decline of the American university in a stew of gender politics, multicultural lip service and upended curricula, Thiel and Sacks portray the contemporary campus as a training ground for a new elite, recognisable to one another through their politically correct, stilted discourse. Politics is the natural home for such an elite, an arena where milquetoast personalities coast along through connections and survive primarily by causing as little disruption as possible. Thiel finds himself, therefore, within the recognisable orbit of alt-right concerns, especially those about campus indoctrination, political correctness and haughty elitism.
More than anything else, however, it is the almost pathological lack of political ambition on the part of humdrum, non-disruptive elitist politics that explains Thiel’s decision to plump for Trump. In the past Thiel, has explained his libertarianism as an “escape from politics” (exit) and the construction of non-political futures through technological means. The means are varied, but involve a triple bet on cyberspace, outer space and seasteading. Thiel has placed a number of such bets, but perhaps the most interesting, politically, are those on Bitcoin-related projects — for instance, the creator of the rival digital currency Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin was a recipient of a Thiel Fellowship scholarship. Buterin is a mild fellow and rarely gets mixed up in politics, but Thiel is content to invest in projects developed by contentious figures, as with his financial support of Hulk Hogan in a suit against the muckraking website Gawker. Thiel is also an investor in Urbit, a super-nerdy take on having a personal server.
Who developed Urbit? None other than Curtis Yarvin/Mencius Moldbug, of neoreactionary fame. Thiel is not just betting on Trump. He is betting on a Moldbuggian outcome where the state is finally recognised for what it is — a large company run by a CEO, but a special one since it is so powerful. With Trump installed CEO-King, Thiel seems himself as its CTO (Chief Technology Officer), for now. Bannon, as an ex-Goldman Sachs trader, is by no means immune to such a perspective, and he too has been linked to Moldbug, but it is Trump who plays the part so well, all gold furniture and court intrigue.
As in all kingdoms, it is the machinations of court politics that will ultimately settle the direction of the meta-religion of the nation. For what is most consequential about the alt-right is its annihilation of what Moldbug called “the Cathedral”. The Cathedral describes a media-academic-cultural consensus with conditions for belonging: members must ascribe to the progressivist religion and must accept dogmas from feminism, multiculturalism and trans-rights activism.
What will fill the vacuum left by the collapsing Cathedral? Bannon offers the Catholic option of the “Fourth Turning” where redemption can be achieved through submission to meta-historical destiny. Thiel offers Protestantism without progressivism, but one that is even less defined in terms of outcome, preferring instead that society develop a taste for the risky rewards of exit. And in the midst of this struggle for the soul sits Trump, the most irreligious of kings, the physical embodiment of the emptiness to be filled, with one pussy-grabbing hand on the nuclear button and the other wrapped around his golf-club sceptre. 100 days in, 1346 to go.
by Paul Eliot-Ennis
This article was commissioned for Village Magazine by Field Day. Founded in 1980, Field Day is a publishing and theatre company dedicated to cultural critique. A Field Day podcast will be launched later in 2017.