The November 2016 US General Election marks a new turn in the global political terrain. Long standing, deeply rooted –but hitherto largely hidden– political forces which call themselves the Dark Enlightenment have leveraged a highly anomalous political situation to capture positions of significant influence on the Presidency of the United States, an office which, while far from omnipotent, significantly enhances their ability to affect the direction of the human civilizational project over the coming period. And even if, as seems entirely probable, their hold on the Presidency collapses, the Dark Enlightenment will not disappear. It is, therefore, imperative that we understand the nature of the social forces they represent, their political valence, their relationship with other political tendencies across the spectrum, the likely impact of their control of the presidency (however brief) and their likely future trajectory.
Understanding the Dark Enlightenment will require significant revisions in our analysis of the situation for human civilization, and of the current alignment of forces globally and in the United States. It will also require significant analysis of the complex ideological dynamics of the tendency itself and of its position in relationship to competing tendencies across the political-theological spectrum. This will, in turn, allow us to assess the likely impact of their strategic victory in November, how they are likely to use it, how the trend is likely to evolve in the future, and how we should respond.
Not just the November 2016 US General Election, but the “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom last June and the sudden rise of what has been called, variously right-wing populism, national conservatism, and ethnonationalism have caught political analysts rather by surprise. We have considered the US election specifically in another context, arguing that the result is in significant measure a product of contingent developments (especially interventions by the Russian State and elements in the US criminal justice system). But the broader trend is significant and it requires explanation. This is especially true since the “standard model” of the alignment of political forces in the neoliberal era, while it explains why such a trend would exist, points not towards its sudden resurgence, but towards its secular decline.
According to the standard model, the dominant force driving global politics is technological progress which has, in turn, set in motion a process of capitalist globalization, leading to the formation of a single, unified global market in capital, labor, goods, and services. The principal cleavages in global politics are defined in relation to these dynamics. The hegemonic neoliberal bloc based in finance capital and the information and technology sectors favors free markets (including, especially, the free flow of Capital), the rule of law, some degree of public accountability for the political authorities (if not, perhaps, democracy in its deeper sense) and a broadly secular outlook in the context of ideological and cultural pluralism. There is broad acceptance of the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and of serious ecological contradictions generally, of the need to address them at a global scale. Elements within the bloc differ over the proper extent (but not the necessity) of the welfare state, liberal rights, and democracy. They are also divided over the extent to which they regard scientific, technological, and economic progress or liberal and democratic politics as the principal agents of human liberation.
Arrayed against this hegemonic bloc, according to the standard model, are relatively small “left” and “right” oppositions composed largely of those “left behind” by technological progress and globalization. These “left behind” elements are defined more by sector than by class. Thus he “left” opposition is localized largely in the humanistic intelligentsia, for whom the global market’s agnosticism regarding questions of meaning and value (which is what we “produce”) represents an existential threat. Alliances with other social sectors tend to be tactical or at best operational (campaigns around specific issues) rather than strategic or fundamental, which is why the left finds itself so marginalized. Indeed, paradoxically for those whose understanding of global politics is still dominated by the struggles of 150 years ago, (but not for those who understand the complexity and fluidity of political alignments) this class fraction finds itself most closely allied with elements of the clerical intelligentsia, which has a similar economic base and a similar professional formation, with sharp contradictions arising mostly around questions of sexuality and gender.
This “left” opposition is represented by movements such as Podemos, La France insoumise, and Syriza in Europe, the Sanders campaign in the US, and the now receding marea rosa in Latin America. The European and US cases represent the ability of a fairly large “mass” humanistic intelligentsia to build some alliances with other forces affected by instrumental (capitalist) rationalization, which proceeds apace under center-left neoliberal governments as it does under the center-right. It should be noted, however, that only in the case of Syriza has this resulted in a coalition capable of governing, and then only in a way which has not actually differentiated it sharply from the center-left. The marea-rosa, on the other hand, represents (at least in the Andean region) a kind of “red-brown” alliance with elements on the right, mediated by populist regimes which do not so much propose an alternative to capitalist rationalization, as temporarily and unsustainably ameliorating it by carrying out redistributionist policies supported by mineral rents.
The “right” opposition, on the other hand, consists of those sectors of the bourgeoisie based in the extractive sector and low technology, low skill, low wage industry (the latter mostly in otherwise advanced capitalist countries where such activities are no longer profitable) together with allied elements in the working classes and the petty bourgeoisie. It articulates its resistance to globalization through a range of implicitly and explicitly ideologies from “national conservatism” through ethnonationalism and various religious fundamentalisms to more or less explicit neofascism.
Trump, Farage, Le Pen, and –in a somewhat difference sense, because he represents a left behind imperial state, rather than just certain economic sectors—Putin, represent this right opposition. There are similar elements in India, in the Bharatiya Janata Party, but for now they remain in alliance with center-right neoliberals. And there are elements of this sort in China (reflected in China’s occasional nationalistic moves in relationship to Japan and its other neighbors), but they seem to be firmly under the control of a party leadership which operates within the context of an authoritarian variant of the center-left neoliberal consensus stripped, to be sure, of its liberal and democratic residues.
There are, to be sure, tendencies and parties which are all but impossible to locate on this spectrum, such as the Italian Cinque Stelle which looks in many ways like Podemos, France Insoumise, or Syriza, but integrates elements of accelerationism which put it at least in dialogue with the alt-right and which has been willing to sit with far right parties in the European Parliament. One might also put at least some of those who supported Bernie Sanders in the US but refused to support the Democratic Party in the general election, such as the so-called “Bernie Bros” in this category.
I would like to argue that, while this “standard model” retains significant explanatory power, it is now in need of fundamental revision. Specifically, the “standard model” misses 1) the impending development of industry past the point at which the exploitation of human labor power is the condition of possibility for the accumulation of capital, and 2) the emergence of Capital as an autonomous force independent of any actually existing human bourgeoisie. While the political trends acknowledged by the “standard model” all exist, they represent a now passing stage in the human civilizational project, a kind of Eighteenth Brumaire re-enacting the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s because we do not yet have the language, much less the theoretical tools to analyze the struggles of our own century.
The critical thing here is to understand that at some point in the last decade marked transition from globalization to automation as the defining material factor framing the broader political economic situation. In 2005 Thomas Friedman (Friedman 2005) wrote:
When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me, “Tom, finish your dinner — people in China are starving.” But after sailing to the edges of the flat world for a year, I am now telling my own daughters, “Girls, finish your homework — people in China and India are starving for your jobs.”
Today the conversation at a fully honest family dinner table would run more like this:
Kids, I am sorry. No degree of underlying talent and no amount of studying are going to be enough. For most of you, a robot is going to be able to do your job better than you can, or at least so much cheaper than you can, that no one is ever going to hire you. And no, I don’t have a solution.
This has, in turn, changed the nature of the underlying debate within the bourgeoisie. Ten years ago, indeed in the entire period from 1978 to 2007, the struggle was between those who argued that the advanced countries needed to adapt to globalization by investing massively in infrastructure, research, education and development in order to capture the technological top tier of the global production chain and those who argued that to be competitive we needed to deregulate and drive wages down to Third World levels. In reality, of course, most advocated a bit of both. This reflected a fundamental cleavage between the more advanced, high technology, high skill, high wage sectors of Capital and lower wage, lower technology sectors.
There were, to be sure, a few notable exceptions to this pattern. Attempting to defend fossil fuel dependence in the face of growing evidence that it is resulting in unsustainable climate change put the extractive sector firmly on the right. And because of the territorial nature of resource supplies, and the role of the military in defending access to them, aerospace and defense leaned in this direction as well. Health care, which long leaned to the right because of the peculiar privileges accorded it in the US economy, also continued to do so, but took an increasingly pragmatic stance as health care reform became inevitable.
Finance capital, which has interests across the economy, leaned towards the more progressive sector, but hedged its bets politically as it did speculatively.
These two bourgeois factions, in turn, formed the core of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, sharing out among them various sectors of the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat more by sector than by class position. Indeed, we can now say with some certainty that 1976 and 1980 were realigning elections and that the polarization between those benefiting and those left behind by globalization, and between those advocating competitiveness through investment in technological and human capital and those advocating competitiveness by wage reductions was the defining alignment of the period from 1978-2007.
Today this alignment is beginning to disintegrate. It remains, to be sure, the social basis on which the Democratic and Republican parties in the US are organized. But the struggle is, increasingly, less about globalization and more about automation: between those who are beginning to acknowledge that the transition to a post-work economy will require massive income or consumption subsidies for the vast majority who cannot reasonably be expected to remain competitively productive and those who are arguing for policies which would, in effect, “slough off” what will rapidly become an ever growing surplus population. And the cleavage around the ecological crisis is also changing. It is increasingly between those who, while unsure what to do, really do recognize that we are at the beginning of a crisis, and those who seem increasingly to behave as though it might be possible to inhabit a humanly uninhabited planet.
The problem, of course, is that while both “investing in technology and human capital” on the one hand, and “loosening labor markets” on the other, are both marketable and doable, we have absolutely no idea how to pay for something like a universal living basic income. And what we cannot sell what we cannot offer. And no one is willing to say that we just need to “slough off” a surplus population which may amount to the vast majority of the planet’s population. The case for the policies which would, in the end, accomplish this must be legitimated on other grounds.
This is where the Dark Enlightenment comes in. The neoliberal alignment already represented a significant distancing of even the more progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie from their erstwhile allies in the “Fordist” working class. But the massive expansion of the information and technology sectors over the course of the past 30 years, while not requiring the same quantum leap in income for the “metropolitan” working class as the old Fordist model, nonetheless depended on continuing expansion of the market for information services and consumer electronics, and thus on global expansion of demand. It also presupposed the continuing existence of a habitable planet. But increasingly some elements of high technology Capital and its associated “gentry” or intelligentsia (those scientists and engineers enjoying monopoly rents on skill or innovations) are beginning to envision leaving behind the “biological substrate” of human existence entirely, uploading their consciousness to electronic platforms which could survive without a human “market” to which to sell their products, and without a humanly habitable planet. This is not to suggest that the majority of high technology Capital has abandoned humanity. But some elements are beginning to do so.
Closely associated with this phenomenon is the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power, independent of its “bourgeois” substrate. In a certain sense Capital has always and already been independent of individual “capitalists.” It inhabits, rather, the ecosystem of humanity generally and the marketplace in particular. Technological developments which allow instantaneous and automated transfers of capital, and more especially the development financial networks which have the potential to develop artificial intelligence, facilitate and advance this independence, but they are not necessary for it. Indeed, what has changed over the course of the past 40 years is not just the development of new information technologies and their application in the financial sector, but the relative decline of civil society and the state (including organs controlled by the bourgeoisie) by comparison with market forces. And so, just as a fraction of the bourgeoisie is exploring the possibility of a posthuman, technologically mediated immortality, Capital is beginning to migrate to a new, silicon based platform.
What is the Dark Enlightenment?
The Dark Enlightenment is, fundamentally, the ideological expression of the early stages in this process. The term “Dark Enlightenment” or “neoreaction” refers, strictly speaking, to a rather small and narrow tendency in the broader “alt-right.” It appears to have its roots in Silicon Valley among a group of software engineers and information technology entrepreneurs who originally joined a transhumanist or accelerationist agenda with libertarian politics. This tendency was libertarian not primarily because of a commitment to freedom, but because they believed that free markets were the best way to catalyze rapid technological progress.
This synthesis of technological progressivism and right leaning politics is nothing new. In the 1980s and 1990s Frank Tipler argued that humanity could, should, and would build God by re-engineering the universe into a massive supercomputer running off of the gravitational sheer created in the final instants of a closed universe which would run emulations of everything that was logically possible. And, following Frederick Hayek (Hayek 1988) he argued that free markets would get us to this point fastest (Barrow and Tipler 1986, Tipler 1994). But for Tipler and indeed for Hayek “right-leaning” meant free markets, not ethnonationalism and authoritarianism.
Sometime around 2006 or 2007 elements within this “right accelerationist” trend, including Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldberg), Peter Thiel, and Michael Asimov began to realize that libertarian economics did not stand a chance in a democracy. And so they began to argue for abandoning democracy in favor of a network of autocratic corporate city states in which people would have the right of “exit” but no “voice.” Anyone wished to (at least anyone with the necessary resources) could, in other words, leave one city state for another, better run alternative. But within each city state, one would have to toe its line. The idea is that the owners of these city states would be motivated to run them as well as possible and thus to attract the best and the brightest. Gradually they began to draw on the ideas of antidemocratic theorists, both from the first third of the twentieth century, including traditionalists such as Julius Evola (Evola 1934) and Rene Guenon (Guenon 1927), who had a quite different political-theological agenda, and more recent thinkers such as Hans Herman Hoppe (Hoppe 2001). They also began to attract around them a periphery of related trends which distinguished themselves from other currents on the right by the purportedly scientific basis of their claims: the “human biodiversity trend,” which argues that there really are genetically determined races with distinct, if not necessarily superior or inferior biological adaptations (Frost 2015, Fuerst 2015), and the “androsophere” (Valizadeh 2017) which argues for traditional gender roles on the basis of sociobiological and similar arguments.
What is the link between right accelerationism on the one hand and traditionalism, racism, and misogyny on the other? The answer is in an evolutionary understanding of human society. Here the intellectual heavy lifting was already done by Frederick Hayek (Hayek 1988) who argued that traditional practices, among which he included not only capitalism but also language, traditional family structures and sexual moralities, and religion, survived precisely because they promote survival. But Hayek was very careful to avoid specifically racist conclusions, treating practices and not genes, individual organisms, or collectivities such as “races” (the very existence of which he denied) as the unit of selection. The Dark Enlightenment is not so cautious. For this trend, selection operates across practices, collectivities, organisms, and genes. And even if we were to call Hayek’s commitment to democracy into question, it is fairly clear he always thought of capitalism as having to provide goods and services to very large numbers of human beings. For reasons we will see, the Dark Enlightenment points us beyond the mass market and thus beyond capitalism as we have historically understood it.
Finally, we should note that the Dark Enlightenment is defined in part by polarization on what it calls the Cathedral, by which it means the complex of hegemonic academic, cultural, and liberal religious institutions, including the mass media which, it argues promotes a more or less secularized version of liberal Christianity. The Dark Enlightenment is quite vigorous in pursuing this polemic, and in using Christian as a term of derision, attaching even militant New Atheists such as Dawkins and Denton as shills for the Cathedral.
The Dark Enlightenment associates the Cathedral specifically with the Puritan tradition. It is quite insightful, in this regard in tracing the specific cultural roots of what has come to be called liberalism (more properly social liberalism) in the United States. The spiritual shadow cast by Puritanism over the center left in the United States is evident in the fact that progressive politics are seen to be first and foremost a reflection of an innate spiritual superiority than an expression of definite social interests. This is one legacy of the Reformed Tradition, and especially its liberal variants, which looked to “usefulness to society,” expressed through either economic productivity or (in this case) commitment to social justice, as evidence of divine election. And this pattern holds even for those whose Calvinism has become fully immanentized. Against this Puritan or “Roundhead” legacy, the Dark Enlightenment identifies with the Cavalier tradition and with its legacy in the Deep South, and indeed with traditionalist trends generally.
One way of understanding the Dark Enlightenment is as the final product of the degeneration of the Social Darwinist tradition more generally. To a tendency which claim that colonialism and slavery, industry and capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy are justified scientifically because they represent the application of the principles of natural selection to human beings, human societies, and human cultural practices, and are superior adaptations to the task of survival under conditions of scarcity, the combined and contradictory threats of ecological catastrophe and technologically mediated abundance would seem to be fatal. But no fear: survival and fitness have been redefined. Survival no longer means the survival of humanity as a species, but rather the evolution of posthuman forms of intelligence which no longer require a biological substrate or a human working class to support them.
The Dark Enlightenment imagines that this posthuman intelligence will emerge from “early adopters” of “consciousness uploading.” More likely it will be the asuric power of Capital itself.
Finally, we should point out that, taken together with related tendencies, such as left transhumanism and accelerationism and the New Atheism, the Dark Enlightenment points out the need to revise in some measure our “civilizational crisis” thesis (Mansueto 2010). In its original form this thesis argued that we are in the early stages of a crisis of the both the dominant technocratic secular ideal and the subaltern humanistic secular ideal, because almost no one found their fundamental claims: that scientific, technological, and economic progress could allow humanity to transcend the limits of finitude or that the creation of a self-determining political subject, whether the rationally autonomous individual, the people, or the working class could allow humanity to transcend its contingency and realize the power of Being as such. Clearly, at this juncture, there has been a significance resurgence of technological utopianism on both the left and the right, especially among millennials. And the phenomenon of the “return of religion” which dominated much political analysis between 1978 and 2007 seems to have receded some.
But this does not mean that the crisis of technocratic secularism has been overcome. On the contrary, transhumanism in all its forms is a manifestation of this crisis, as it is increasingly apparent that, for all the good it can do, technological progress is not the definitive solution to all human problems. Instead, technological progress, especially under an industrial technological regime, makes humanity itself into a problem to be overcome, which is precisely what the Dark Enlightenment proposes to do.
What are the strategic implications of the emergence of the Dark Enlightenment? We should be clear, to begin with, that even within the Trump government, the Dark Enlightenment is only one force among many. Trump himself, and his family, are first and foremost opportunistic cleptocrats who are insufficiently developed to hold a consistent ideology, even a dark and sinister one. The Republican Party which profited, almost certainly accidently, from Trump’s rise is, at this point itself not much more than a vehicle for the most opportunistic and rapacious sectors of the bourgeoisie looking to capture some short term gains in tax or energy policy. And it is not clear that they will be able to continue to support Trump indefinitely without threatening their own position. Under these circumstances, what we are witnessing is most likely not the first stage in the emergence of a corporate state lead by a Dark Enlightenment vanguard. It is more like an accidental and very premature coming out party for a political tendency which will have to develop a more sophisticated alliance strategy if it is to accomplish its aims.
This said, the tendency does represent real and potentially very powerful social forces. We had best know how to resist. Here, as in our broader response to the Trump government, we favor a dual strategy integrating popular front and longue durée elements. On the one hand, we need to unite not only the left opposition and the progressive wing of the hegemonic neoliberal bloc, but also those conservatives who affirm the value of a specifically human civilization (and thus a viable ecosystem and meaningful, sustainable future for the population of this planet. A focus on humanity and on the earth will serve to neutralize not only opportunistic “left behind” elements within the bourgeoisie (and their allies in the petty bourgeoisie and working classes) who are tempted by the opportunistic and rapacious policies of the broader Republican Party, but also those on the “left” who are tempted by transhumanism and accelerationism. This should be expressed by, among other things, a polemic against transhumanism and accelerationism as bad science. At the same time, we must resist maximalist tendencies which demand now revolutionary changes (or even reforms, such as a universal living basic income) which we do not know how to make and the conditions for which are only beginning to emerge. For now, our aim is to defeat Trump (and the Dark Enlightenment along with him) as well as all of the other right wing populist/national conservative parties which have come to power, and to begin to gradually reshape the hegemonic progressive bloc in a more humanistic direction.
Our revolutionary commitments, however, must not go unexpressed. It is just that they must be expressed over the longue durée, through the work of refining a new civilizational ideal which integrates axial and humanistic elements, balancing spirituality and a commitment to civilizational progress. We must also begin to articulate what kind of structures might support that ideal. How do we navigate simultaneously an ecological crisis which suggests that current levels of consumption are unsustainable, at least on the basis of current technologies, and technological developments which suggest that both scarcity and non-creative drudgery may be a thing of the past?
As we are doing this we need to work hard to identify, cultivate, and mentor leaders who are capable of thinking and acting over centuries and millennia, and we need to (re)build institutions which can do the same. You can find more extended thoughts on what this all means in The Death of Secular Messianisms and The Ways of Wisdom (Mansueto 2010, 2016), as well as in many of my earlier posts in this blog.
We live in a dangerous period. But by understanding the real nature of these dangers we also discover the incredible strength of the creative power that we are fighting for –that fights in and through us. The present is dark, but it allows to once again see the stars. The future is brilliant.
Evola, Julius 1934. Rivolta contro il mondo modero. Milano: Hoepli.
Friedman, Thomas. 2005. The World is Flat. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Frost, Peter. 2015. “The emerging synthesis in human biodiversity.” Evo & Proud, Jan. 3, 2015.
Fuerst, John. 2015. “The nature of race.” Open Behavioral Genetics, June, 2015.
Guenon, René 1927. La crise du monde moderne. Paris: Gallimard
Hayek, F.A. 1988. Fatal Conceit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. 2001. Democracy: The God that Failed. Transaction Press
Land, Nick. 2012. The Dark Enlightenment. Accessed at http://www.thedarkenlightenment.com/the-dark-enlightenment-by-nick-land/
Mansueto, Anthony. 2010. The Death of Secular Messianisms. Eugene, OR: Cascade
———. 2016 The Ways of Wisdom. Eugene, OR: Pickwick
Moldberg, Mencius. 2008. “An open letter to open minded progressives,” in Unqualified Reservations. Accessed at http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2008/04/open-letter-to-open-minded-progressives.html
More, Max. 1990. “Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy,” Extropy 6,. Accessed at http://fennetic.net/irc/extropy/ext6.pdf
Valizadeh, Roosh. 2017. Return of Kings. Accessed at http://www.returnofkings.com/52295/top-35-most-important-articles-on-rok
Williams, Alex and Srnicek, Nick. 2013. “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,” Critical Legal Studies. Accessed at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/
 By the “standard model” of global politics I mean the prevailing consensus regarding what constitute the principal political and ideological tendencies globally, their social basis, and strategic, operational, and tactical orientation. This consensus is widely shared, albeit with some variations, across most of the political and ideological spectrum and across the range of disciplines involved in analyzing global politics.
 By transhumanist (More 1990), I mean any perspective which looks to technology not simply to unleash the full creative potential of humanity, but to bring into being new forms of organization, superior to humanity, and would realize humanity’s drive to transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress. Accelerationism is a specific transhumanist global strategy which looks to the radical intensification of current technological and economic trends, including commoditization, in order to either draw out the contradictions of capitalism and lead to a postcapitalist breakthrough which will make transhumanist technology possible (left accelerationism, e. g. Williams and Srnicek 2013) or, more commonly, in order to directly bring about such technological progress within a capitalist context (right accelerationism, e.g. Land 2012).