In last week’s thrilling episode of The Kek Wars, we talked about the way that America’s managerial aristocracy and its broad penumbra of lackeys and hangers-on retreated into a self-referential bubble to avoid noticing the consequences of their preferred policies. As they did so, those policies—the metastatic growth of government regulation that strangled small businesses and transferred power and wealth to huge corporations and federal bureaucracies, the trade policies that forced working class wages and benefits down below subsistence levels, and the tacit policy of encouraging unlimited illegal immigration that created a vast labor pool of noncitizens who had no rights and thus could be exploited with impunity—drove tens of millions of Americans into destitution and misery. Now it’s time to start exploring how the blowback to those policies took shape.
Part of that blowback came from within the working classes that took the brunt of the policies just named, and part of it came from other sectors of society that were shut out of the benefits of the bipartisan policy consensus and forced to carry a disproportionate share of the costs. Another element of it, though, unfolded from a policy that elites always embrace sooner or later: the habit of making sure that the educational system produces more people trained for managerial tasks than existing institutions can absorb.
Why should elites do this? For them, at least in the short term, the advantages are obvious. If you’re going to entrust the running of society to a hierarchy of flunkeys who are allowed to rise up from the underprivileged masses but are never quite allowed to join the overprivileged elite—and this, of course, is the normal condition of a complex society—you need to enforce rigid loyalty to the system and the ideas it considers acceptable. The most effective way to this is to set candidates for flunkeyhood against each other in a savage competition that most will lose.
As your prospective flunkeys climb over one another, kicking and clawing their way toward a sharply limited number of positions of wealth and influence, any weakness becomes a weapon in the hands of rivals. You thus can count on getting the best, the brightest, and—above all—those who have sedulously erased from their minds any tendency to think any thought not preapproved by the conventional wisdom. Your candidates will be earnest, idealistic, committed, ambitious, if that’s what you want them to be; ask them to be something else and you’ll get that, too, because under the smiling and well-groomed facade you’ve got a bunch of panicked conformists whose one stark terror is that they will somehow fail to please their masters.
It’s the losers in that competition who matter here, though. There are always some of them, and in modern America there are a lot of them: young men and women who got shoved aside in the stampede for those positions of wealth and influence, and didn’t even get the various consolation prizes our society offers the more successful end of the also-rans. They’re the ones who for one reason or another—lack of money, lack of talent, lack of desire—didn’t take all the right classes, do all the right extracurricular activities, pass all the right tests, think all the right thoughts, and so fell by the wayside.
Not all of the losers in question live in their moms’ basements and spend their days playing video games, but a significant number do. In today’s America, remember, jobs are scarce, rents have been artificially inflated to an absurd degree, and what used to be the normal trajectory toward an independent adult life has been slammed shut for a very large number of young people. So those who have been shut out, the educated failures, gather online, play video games, and frequent online forums such as “the chans”—websites such as 4chan and 8chan—where posts are anonymous, the rules that govern acceptable discourse no longer apply, and the more offensive to the privileged an idea is, the better it goes over.
That’s usually what happens when an elite makes the mistake of educating far more people than it’s willing to employ. Go look at the long history of revolutions and you’ll find that far more often than not, the people who overthrow governments and bring nations crashing down are the precise equivalent of today’s basement brigade: people with educations but no opportunities, losers in the struggle for prestige and wealth, who figure out how to weaponize their outsider status in one way or another.
One of the things that makes losers so dangerous in such a setting is that they have a freedom their successful classmates lack: the freedom to think and say whatever they want. In the struggle for success, remember, any least sign of straying from the acceptable is a weapon in the hands of your rivals, and will be used ruthlessly to shove you aside and take your place. (Watch students at prestigious US universities looking for any pretext to accuse each other of racism or sexism if you want a great example of this process in action.) Those who drop out of the struggle don’t have to submit to the suffocating conformism demanded of their successful peers, and inevitably make use of that freedom in ways that offend the conventionally minded.
That’s harmless if the conventional wisdom works. It stops being harmless in a hurry when the policies embraced by the aristocracy have disastrous consequences for too many people outside the self-referential bubble of elite culture. Smart aristocrats recognize this, and pay attention to the way their policies affect the lives of the majority, but here in America we don’t have smart aristocrats. We have clueless aristocrats who’ve barricaded themselves inside an echo chamber from which any talk of the downsides of the approved policies has been carefully excluded.
What happens in such situations is that the losers become the only ones willing to talk about the things that matter most to a great many people. That means, in turn, that whatever ideology the losers happen to have embraced may just become the guiding vision of radical political change, and if the change goes far enough, that ideology can end up imposed on a nation. If you’re lucky, the losers in question might embrace democratic nationalism, and you get a successful democracy such as modern Ireland or India. If you’re not lucky, the losers in question might embrace a far more toxic ideology, and you get Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
And the losers we’re discussing? That’s where the Alt-Right comes into the story.
If you happen to be interested in the history of ideas, as I am, one of the most fascinating events in the last dozen years or so has been the twilight of Reagan-era pseudoconservatism and the first tentative gropings toward the revival of an authentic conservatism: that is to say, a political and social movement that actually conserves something. The pseudoconservatives of the Reagan and post-Reagan era adopted every major policy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—deficit spending on the grand scale, government subsidies for private industry, endlessly expanding entitlement programs for the middle class, endlessly expanding federal regulations, a foreign policy obsessed with military intervention, and the rest of it—while tossing the occasional crumb to religious conservatives and a few other pressure groups on the right.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that anyone who proposed today’s “conservative” policies in a GOP county convention in 1960, say, would have been thrown out of the meeting with enough force to leave a dent in the sidewalk. Until recently, though, the only alternatives to that faux-conservative ideolody were, on the one hand, the soi-disant Neoconservatives, who simply doubled down on all of American pseudoconservatism’s worst features, and on the other, a gaggle of extremist religious zealots and free-market libertarians whose idea of conservatism was to pursue their own arbitrary utopian fantasies with a doctrinaire enthusiasm that more than matched that of the Marxists they so cordially hated.
That started to change in 2007, when Curtis Yarvin, blogging under the name Mencius Moldbug, began attracting attention online for a set of ideas that have come to be called “Neoreaction”—essentially, classic nineteenth century European reactionary politics retooled for early twenty-first-century conditions, complete with an enthusiasm for absolute monarchy and a rejection of the whole range of democratic values. Neoreaction had a modest vogue in those online circles where the excluded spend their ample spare time, and thereafter it quickly lost its novelty and settled back into the same underworld of longshot causes where distributism, social threefolding, democratic syndicalism, and the like have their home. It succeeded, though, in punching a hole through the pseudoconservative orthodoxies of our time and raising hard questions about what a genuine alternative to the status quo would look like.
It also introduced a useful term into what would become the vocabulary of the Alt-Right: “the Cathedral.” This was Yarvin’s term for the enforced consensus of the mainstream, the set of values and beliefs that justify the existing order of society and, not coincidentally, the privileged place of the managerial aristocracy in that order. It’s a brilliant coinage, because it catches the devout faith and the moral fervor with which believers in the conventional wisdom of our time rally around the things they believe. At the same time, of course, a cathedral isn’t simply a set of ideas; it’s also an institution that deploys a great deal of influence and wealth, and the visible expression of a hierarchy in which believers and heretics alike have their strictly defined places.
Mind you, there’s plenty to object to in Neoreaction, and some of the things that followed in its wake were even more toxic. Of course various reworkings of fascism and national socialism got a word in—the cultural mainstream has put so much effort into portraying Hitler as the ultimate antithesis of today’s elite values that it was inevitable that some would stray down that self-defeating path. The writings of Julius Evola and other Traditionalists got their share of air time, and so did more recently minted ideologies. The one thing they all had in common was that they were utterly unacceptable to America’s aristocracy—and of course that’s the one feature they needed to have. Those who have been discarded and despised by the gatekeepers of the status quo will only be interested in ideologies that those same gatekeepers find unspeakably offensive.
Thus we don’t yet have a consensus ideology among the losers we’ve been discussing. The label “Alt-Right” is a grab bag of contending notions, not a specific set of proposals. The mainstream media’s loud insistence that the Alt-Right is all about racism, by the way, is straightforward disinformation; what the American aristocracy fears more than anything else is a rapprochement between working class white people and working class people of color, and the constant shrieks of “racism!” from the privileged classes are part of a strategy intended to stave off that ultimate elite nightmare.
Thus one crucial wild card in play, once a society has pupped a sufficiently large batch of losers, is which ideology will become central to the opposition to the elite, and in the present case that hasn’t been decided yet. Since so much of the Alt-Right closed ranks around the Trump campaign when that got under way in 2015, it’s entirely possible that something not too far from old-fashioned democratic nationalism may be the ideology that comes out on top in the current situation, in which case the long-term results could be fairly good—although it’s still quite possible that something more toxic might result instead.
The other crucial wild card is the choice of a basic strategy. If revolutionary warfare happens to catch the fancy of the excluded, and they can make common cause with a demographic sector that includes a lot of the rank and file of the military and a lot of military vets, then there’s a really good chance that your society will plunge into civil war and a lot of people will die. If it’s terrorism that catches their fancy, a smaller number of people will die much more uselessly—terrorism is great for working off your martyr complex but it always fails. (Can you name a terrorist organization that actually succeeded in its political aims? No, I didn’t think so.)
But there are other options as well, and one of them is magic.
Magic, as I noted in last week’s post, was defined by the great twentieth century mage Dion Fortune as the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. It’s extremely well suited to politics, since human beings in the mass are easily swayed by symbols and ritual actions. Look at the way that content-free incantations such as “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes We Can” helped catapult Barack Obama into the presidency, and you can grasp some hint of the power of magic in politics. What makes magic an extraordinarily potent force, though, is that it doesn’t require the kind of immense marketing budget that Obama’s campaign used to sell their bland and smiling product to the voters; it can be done on a shoestring budget by a few part time people if it’s done cleverly enough, and with enough mastery of the principles of magic.
It was in 2015, or so I’ve read, that several frequent habitués of “the chans” encountered a particular school of modern magic, brought it back to their favorite online forums, and started talking enthusiastically about it. The particular form of magic they introduced to the basement brigade is called chaos magic, and thereby hangs a tale.
It so happens that every few decades someone tries to bridge the gap between science and magic by coming up with a version of magic that borrows concepts from current trends in science, and deep-sixes those elements of traditional Western occultism that scientists won’t tolerate. It never succeeds in bridging the gap, of course, because modern science has always defined its identity in opposition to occultism, and any time the mages come up with something that comes too close to science, the scientists simply move the goal posts. Yet the systems of magic created by these efforts tolerably often work well in practice, and can develop an extensive following.
In the nineteenth century, for example, physicists theorized that light consisted of wave patterns in the ether, a hypothetical substance filling the universe. Occultists jumped on the label “ether” and borrowed it as a label for the subtle omnipresent life force of magical theory—by the way, that’s spelled qi in Chinese, ki in Japanese, prana in Sanskrit, and so on through the roster of the world’s languages. (As far as I know, the only languages on Earth that don’t have a word for this commonly recognized reality are the dominant languages of the industrial nations of the West. Is that accidental? Not a chance.)
In response to the borrowing of their term by occultists, scientists dropped the ether like a hot rock. Instead, light became probability waves moving through four-dimensional spacetime. What differentiates “four-dimensional spacetime” from “the ether”? Purely that the former enables scientists to place the familiar distance between their disciplines and the occult. I’m quite certain that if occultists started making a big deal of the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun, scientists would rediscover the joys of a geocentric cosmos.
Chaos magic emerged in the usual way in the late 1970s, just as the current generation of radical scientific materialists were beginning to hit their stride, and it’s telling that the bêtes noires of those radical scientific materialists—notably, the real existence of gods and spirits, on the one hand, and the efficacy of astrology on the other—were also heatedly rejected by the early chaos magicians. The goal of the founders of the new magic was, as usual, the development of magical systems free of old-fashioned superstition, and thus notionally acceptable to people who have bought into the worldview of contemporary science.
The result was an approach to magic that treats gods, spirits, and other magical beings as wholly imaginary constructs used by human beings to focus their innate magical energies. Does it work? Sure, within the limits it sets for itself. As an unabashed practitioner of traditional Western occultism, I find that chaos magic reminds me forcefully of lite beer, in contrast to the rich dark brew of the sort of magic I prefer—but of course there are people who like lite beer. In magic, as so many other things, personal tastes are what they are, and there’s no such thing as One True Way. I know people who use chaos magic and get good results with it.
Two core elements of chaos magic, however, made it particularly well suited to the culture of the chans, and a third turned out to have decisive importance in the way things worked out once the Kek Wars broke out. The first of these elements is that the methods of chaos magic mesh well with certain aspects of today’s online outsider culture. The basic working tool of common or garden chaos magic is the sigil, a symbolic image or pattern used to represent the intention of a magical working. Internet memes by and large make good sigils, and some of them make very good hypersigils—this is the chaos magic term for a sigil used by a group of people with a shared intention.
Second, while chaos magic takes just as much hard work to master as any other kind of magic, the simplified nature of its theory and practice makes it fairly easy for beginners to pick up some degree of basic competence at it very quickly. In particular, a fairly modest amount of reading and practice will enable the enthusiastic beginner to learn how to create suitable sigils and charge them with magical energy using any of several simple methods. That made it possible for the chans to become a chaos magic boot camp for thousands of young people who’d been discarded by the system and were eager to strike back.
The third point is more subtle. Most versions of chaos magic teach that gods and spirits are simply hypersigils devised and empowered by old religious and magical traditions, rather than conscious nonphysical beings with their own intentions and powers. Many chaos magicians, in fact, treat the universe as a blank slate in which human beings are the only active presences. As a result, very few chaos magicians learn how to work safely with gods and spirits who aren’t products of human minds. That’s something that traditional occultists know how to do, and it informs many of the basic practices and teachings of traditional occultism, but these protections were among the things that the early chaos magicians discarded when they broke with traditional occultism.
As a result, tens of thousands of young and angry outcasts who were part of the chans and a galaxy of similar online communities took up the intensive study and practice of basic magical workings without any sense of how to manage interactions with nonphysical beings—or, indeed, any notion that such interactions might need to be managed. That, in turn, pretty much guaranteed that if something other than human took an interest in the situation, a lot of the graduates of the chans’ magical boot camps were going to be swept up in something over which they had no control at all.
That’s what happened, too. Next week we’ll talk about how that process unfolded.