The Dissident Interviews: Curtis Yarvin on Libertarianism, the Cathedral, Poetry and more
Curtis Yarvin, also known by the pen name Mencius Moldbug, is an American blogger. One of the sharpest and most articulate critics of contemporary (US) democracy, Yarvin has gathered a substantial online following over the years, first with his (now-defunct) blog Unqualified Reservations (2007 – 2013), and more recently with his substack Gray Mirror. A self-described ‘monarchist’, and often credited as the founder of ‘neoreaction’, Yarvin has long been one of the leading writers and intellectual figures on the dissident Right.
As part of a series of interviews which will see various ‘dissident’ figures featured in our pages, we decided to reach out to Curtis for an exclusive interview. What follows is a written exchange between him and Lomez, one of our contributors and long-time reader and appreciator of Curtis’ work.
— The Editors
“Power owns [the] body, but has no purchase at all on [the] soul.”
— Curtis Yarvin
Lomez: In a recent post on Gray Mirror you identified three kinds of dissidents: 1) anons 2) pundits, and 3) “outsiders who DGAF.” While you concede that anons are capable of the best art — which you seem to imply is distinct from the best ideas — you also accuse anons of playing tennis without a net. So, having written for so long under a pseudonym, was Mencius Moldbug playing tennis without a net?
Curtis Yarvin: Unqualified Reservations (UR) was written in a fundamentally different intellectual period, a sort of American Hundred Flowers period — a period when everyone thought the Internet had made the thought-control state a thing of the past.
(That was an illusion, of course; it was always (and has always been) a thing of the present; any regime which does not at least manage what its subjects think will shortly be replaced by one that does. Popper’s paradox.
The flaw in Popper’s paradox is that, once he admits that the open society cannot be open, he removes the only argument for the open society (just his word for oligarchy). Popper shows you that even oligarchies must be illiberal — then, for his other one thousand pages, argues for oligarchies, because they must be liberal. There is no paradox; the professor has only disproved himself.)
Periods are never numerologically perfect. The ‘60s are like 1963-74. There were no zeros. The ‘90s lasted until about 2005, and the ‘20s actually started in 2015. So UR is really a blog from the teens, also the golden age of blogging.
In the teens everyone thought the Internet was the open society. It was the open society. The idea that Blogger or WordPress would boot a blog, for instance, for anything short of truly shocking and criminal content, was basically unthinkable. Even when I was pitching Urbit in 2014 or 2015 I would be like: the free-speech use case isn’t really important, no one really cares what you put on Blogger.
The reason I didn’t do Satoshi-tier opsec to hide my identity, back in 2007, is that I thought it would be egotistical — as if I expected this writing to really Matter, like I was some kind of secret agent. Actually I was not pursuing any large audience or power, and no power was pursuing me.
Lomez: The naivety around free-speech and the internet is striking in hindsight. I am reminded of John Perry Barlow’s famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996: “Governments of the Industrial World… I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather… You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
Statements like this seem laughable now but Barlow was projecting a common belief, and common expectation, of the techno-libertarians who by and large built the internet. I suspect you might think re: Popper that the libertarian essence of the early internet was always doomed to be crushed, but was there anything that could have been done differently, by the engineers and architects, or by end users, or by any of the stakeholders in developing digital tech, to uphold Barlow’s vision? And as a participant in these early days of the internet, and a once self-described libertarian, did the eventual fate of the web influence the evolution of your politics?
Curtis Yarvin: I got my start as a very online teenager in about 1989 on Usenet. Usenet was a kind of decentralized Reddit except vastly superior, not just in technology but also user quality. Unfortunately, Usenet was a delicate flower. Usenet could only work on a nerd-only Internet. In the famous “Eternal September,” it was killed as soon as the masses could flood into the room. “No one goes there anymore; it’s too popular.”
It was nonetheless the ideology of ‘90s Usenet — which was this exact same John Perry Barlow ideology, this kind of light techno-libertarian-anarchist vibe (letting anyone be a little bit left, like Barlow himself, or a little bit right, “peace love and unity man”) which wound up evolving more or less unchanged into the open-society ideology of the blogosphere in the teens. But there was actually an important technical difference.
What smart guys like Zuckerberg had discovered in the late ‘90s (remembering that the ‘90s go until 2005) was that the best way to give people the Internet was actually just to fake it. In this fake Internet, instead of every user having their own node, each user would be just a row in a single giant database on a single giant server.
Technically, I can’t even tell you how much easier centralization makes everything. But the appeal of the Internet was still a system that felt decentralized — your account on this service felt like a thing that belonged to you. And of course this confection, which was basically AOL but using the Internet instead of a modem, inherited the ethos of the Internet. And in the teens it was still “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”
But since it was actually AOL and was actually centralized, it had a single point of failure — a pressure point. That point was always going to get pressured, especially once the Hundred Flowers really started to blossom. People still haven’t really come to terms with what a walled garden the American media ecosystem was for most of the 20th century…
That said, I don’t know that this narrative had much impact on my political philosophy, which largely developed in parallel as I was thinking about these kinds of technical issues. My ideas really came from reading the Austrian School, Mises and Rothbard, and then Hoppe — Hoppe owned a kind of door to the prerevolutionary world for me. Of course that whole world is free online largely thanks to Google, so maybe that’s my real techno-influence…
Lomez: It is curious to me that so many on the dissident right, what I’ve called before the GestAlt-Right, came from libertarian origins. Youthful indiscretion is to blame for much of this perhaps, but also in the End of History context, libertarianism, of whatever stripe, represented an attractive high ground to lob grenades at partisan hacks. It was, anyway, a blank canvas for precocious, if spergy, politically minded thinkers to explore ideas that were otherwise verboten. Libertarianism, for all its emphasis on ‘freedom’, was a natural jumping off point to various edges of the political compass. When the bioleninist specimens at Jezebel or wherever accuse South Park of being a gateway to “right-wing extremism,” they are not all together wrong.
So I wonder, how did you make your way from Hoppe to whatever it is you describe yourself as now? And as a related matter, I know the Ernst Jünger’s novel Eumeswil has been influential on your political thinking. Can you elaborate on that?
Curtis Yarvin: I think it is natural to look at a hypertrophied, dysfunctional regime and say: there should be less of that. There should be less of the State. To any engineer, spontaneous orders are elegant and seem to work well; competition works well, bureaucracy doesn’t. Easy to start with that.
Then Hoppe points out: we can see the premodern international order as a spontaneous order! It’s actually the ultimate in libertarianism: states are competing sovereign corporations. Above them, there is no government at all — a global anarcho-libertarian paradise of armed ‘sovcorps’.
Yet strangely, in this ultra-libertarian model, states are not libertarian at all! A nation is a land and its settled people. The sovcorp owns both — because who else would? So the state, not as in Anglo-American limited-government theory, but as in Continental sovereignty theory, is absolute. Or rather, any explanation of why it need not be absolute is superfluous — a wart on the model.
Hoppe goes on to point that a hereditary monarchy in the classic European style, far from being a barbaric relic, is simply a sovcorp that’s a family business. Because the time horizon of a family is indefinite, like the time horizon of a state, the hereditary monarch exhibits the least tension between personal and national interests.
An absolute hereditary monarch has no interest in employing a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Since he wants to see his nation thrive, he is more likely to adopt the economic and social system that seems to make nations thrive: libertarian capitalism. So we come full circle, in a kind of layer-cake of libertarianism, then absolute monarchy, then more libertarianism.
So Hoppean theory created a strange kind of bridge between the Anglo-American tradition of political philosophy, which has conquered the world not entirely by force of ideas, and the older Continental or Machiavellian tradition. Wow! And I walked across the bridge.
Of course there are many such portals. At the time I was unaware of James Burnham’s The Machiavellians, an earlier such synthesis (1940), which is the primer in realistic political philosophy that I usually recommend. I still tend to focus more on Anglo-American writers, perhaps mostly because despite being an International Jew I read only English.
As for Eumeswil, is an amazing work that has influenced both my perspective and my life. Jünger wrote this science-fiction novel, which is not just politically but also technically prescient, in his eighties; in a way it is the distillation of his experience in living through four German regimes.
Jünger distinguishes between the “anarch,” who remains aloof from power and strives to retain his mental independence from it, and the “anarchist,” who acts out his resistance to power, usually because of uncontrolled desire for power. It is always the anarchist who goes to the gulag — the anarch, in fact, is often safer than even the true believer.
For example, in our shitshow of a pandemic, the anarchist is lectured to wear a mask; because of this, he refuses to wear a mask. On a plane, he is ordered to wear a mask; either he submits to this order, grumbling about his rights, or he gets unruly.
The anarch is lectured to wear a mask; he does not care much about the lecture, except as evidence of what certain people believe; he makes up his own mind about how well masks work, underweighting sources who seem to be in a political frenzy. Perhaps he was wearing a mask when masks were racist, and is still wearing one now that it’s righteous.
When ordered (enforceably) to wear a mask, he wears one; if ordered to wear a Burger King crown, or a Manchu queue, or even a Sikh turban, he wears one as well. Power has its rights. The anarch knows this; he even knows he has no rights. The anarch is big into compliance.
But while the anarch always complies, he never submits. Being ordered to wear a turban cannot in any way make him a Sikh; not only that, it cannot even make him an anti-Sikh. Power owns his body, but has no purchase at all on his soul.
Lomez: I think we are hitting on a tension here that distinguishes your point of view from many otherwise ideologically aligned readers and admirers of your work. Or anyway a key difference in attitude and disposition. Venator, the protagonist of Eumeswil, an exemplar of this concept of the ‘anarch’, and a thinly veiled mouthpiece for Jünger himself, is self-removed, detached, a kind of hermit of the soul, as you explain. This detachment from partisan commitments allows for a tremendous amount of interior freedom, which leads Venator into the deepest and most trenchant possible insights into the social and political forces that surround him.
But we do not all have this kind of intellectual luxury. We cannot all be hermits of the soul. The world and its history turns on the imperfect understanding and actions of men who are in the fight, men who enter the arena and are willing to test their might and resolve against that of antagonists.
Jünger was an extraordinary man and thinker who was perhaps uniquely endowed to adopt this stance of the ‘anarch’. The rest of us? I’m not so sure. At least this attitude is not universally generalizable, right? So how do we navigate these competing strategies? How should dissident thinkers who reject the current regime and wish to protect themselves and their families from its worst excesses best stand against it? Should we all be more like Venator? Should we all retreat to our interior redoubts from which to draw more detailed maps of the territory? Or is there also a role for active and explicit partisan resistance?
Curtis Yarvin: You use too many metaphors, young Jedi. The idea that a thinker is, by thinking or even by sharing their thoughts, “acting,” is one of the bad ideas of the revolutionary period. It is an anarchist idea. It both endangers you and corrupts your thoughts.
Look back at my stance on masks and vaccines. My stance, the ‘clearpilled’ stance, is that the Official Position on these subjects, while interesting and often even important, does not matter to me. I would as soon be convinced by the Cathedral automatically, as disagree with it automatically. Either way you are its slave.
If you feel that you are ‘acting’ against it by spreading or acting on opinions that disagree with it, you are still in this place of larping the 18th century. This is not an effective way to organize any kind of action. You are not ‘acting’ but ‘acting out’, and I am always opposed to ‘acting out’.
It is certainly the case that no regime is changed except by political action in some broad sense. That action will be a short and sharp affair — probably just an election, of sorts. That election is the construction of an ad-hoc army of the people, and this army will indeed need generals, centurions, community organizers, etc.
This is real action. It is a completely different kind of action. It is completely superfluous today, because, as Lenin would say, the objective conditions of revolution are not present.
And most important, it is completely disjoint from the actions of the writer and the thinker, which must be so far above the Cathedral as to never react reflexively to its words — any more than you would believe X because X ! = Y and the Pope or the Ayatollah Khamenei or the Politburo endorsed Y, or something.
It is true that not many intellectuals are needed; but they have to be historians of the present; and the attitude of the anarch is the attitude of the historian, applied to the present. Their job is to be an intelligence department, not an army; their goal is to understand, predict, and plan.
Separating these inchoate quasi-agencies of a hypothetical future regime makes an enormous amount of sense. The job of the intelligence agency is not war — just understanding. Our country is in a grievous state, but understanding it is not yet quite a crime. And even if it is, it is the smallest crime we can commit.
Also, an objective understanding of any conflict should not depend on which side you’re on — two optimal but opposed intelligence agencies should reach the same conclusion. The intelligence of any intelligence agency should be so objective that even the enemy could use it to plan.
By creating and disseminating this intelligence, however, we are creating a landscape of mind which implies a landscape of power on which a realistic political army may eventually operate.
Even at that time, it will remain ideal to separate the brain and the body — the body is a lot more replaceable. Are you a political organizer of any kind? I certainly am not. Better to stick to one’s own lane.
TLDR: either you are actually a political organizer, or you are not actually ‘acting’. If you are not acting, you should not use the metaphors of action — they will at least confuse your thinking, and at most endanger your project. I will admit that an extraordinary person could be both — but even in that person, the roles should be separated. Just as an engineering principle.
Lomez: I’d like to pivot here from the discussion of who we are, to who they are. You reference in your previous response “The Cathedral” (capitalized), which is perhaps your best-known coinage, and has even recently graced the chyron of Fox News. The Cathedral has come to mean many things, but generally refers to the broad constellation of institutions and cultural forces that dictate conventional wisdom. We might call these institutions and the forces behind them epistemic authorities. There is much debate and controversy over what the Cathedral is, its actual influence, its provenance, and whether it’s a new idea at all or if you’ve just reinvented the same wheel as any other dissident ideology. I have even heard Marxists accuse you of merely appropriating the concept of capital superstructure.
But my understanding of what you mean by the Cathedral is far more modest than all of that. You define the cathedral (lower-case) as merely “journalism + academia.” You document the cathedral’s many perverse selection effects and its tendency toward “dominant ideas” rather than true or beautiful ideas. But you also conclude that the cathedral is not really the problem, rather a secondary symptom of some deeper systemic rot. I suppose the rot to which you might be alluding is the Enlightenment and its attendant forms of governance. Still, doesn’t every regime — republican, monarchical, even — need its cathedral, an institution or set of institutions that produces and vets knowledge, that produces and vets art, produces its mythos, its soft rules for social engagement, etc.? And if so, what are the mechanisms by which such a complex of institutions — or even a single church — could perform this function and not be plagued by a constant leftward drift?
Curtis Yarvin: I want frens to feel free to use upper or lower case. Sometimes I even change my mind myself…
I’m an Erastian — the church is a branch of the state. It is certainly necessary to have institutions of knowledge, but these institutions must be subordinate to powers outside and above them. This is true for both religion and science.
For an example of this principle, look no farther than Covid. There was no power outside and above virology that could say to virology: Wow, I see you want to go out and collect bat viruses and tinker with them so they can infect humans. And the goal of this research is to make these crossover viruses intentionally, to… predict they might evolve accidentally? And what would we do with this prediction, anyway? Exterminate all the bats? No? Okay… guys, really sorry, but I’m running super late this afternoon. Do you mind if we put a pin in this and pick it up another day? I love your ideas — I really want to stay in touch with whatever you guys are thinking about…
This is the relationship between engineers and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. In order for your engineering project to happen, you have to convince someone who isn’t an engineer. This person will not take a deep dive into your technology, but will take a deep dive into your general sanity and common sense.
The consequence of this sanity filter is that crazy ideas are no longer dominant — since they will not actually generate power if they cannot pass the filter. So the marketplace of ideas is flat again — not naturally flat, but artificially flattened — and it works again.
Obviously, in a monarchy, this filter is an extension of executive power. In an oligarchy, there is no executive power, leaving no one who can say no to the virologists. Virologists and other scientists are delicate creatures and should not be exposed to the temptations of sovereignty.
Lomez: This raises I think another disagreement some have with your point of view of the elites who comprise the cathedral. You have said, or at least implied that these — the Harvard faculty and the editorial staff at The New York Times, not to mention the top of the food chain at the various bureaucracies and institutions that determine the intellectual inputs driving our decline — that these elites are competent, smart, and in fact the true cream of the meritocratic crop. Many have said to me: “Is Yarvin lying when he says this? Surely he must see what we see: our elites are at best midwits. They are ignorant of history, naive of present realities, and short-sighted in their prescriptions. They are callow and cruel. The cathedral, in other words, is not sending their best.”
Are they right? Doesn’t Hanlon’s Razor apply to what we are seeing from our current elites — the Faucis, the Brennans, the Baquets, the Milleys, the Zuckers — they are, at bottom, just kind of dumb?
Curtis Yarvin: No, actually, it’s the machine that’s dumb. When you meet the people, they have generally worked very hard with a lot of competition to get these high-status positions. The one thing that can be sacrificed in this race is the competence of the machine, which is why they look dumb.
But, for example, a person like Sheryl Sandberg can function at a high level in both D.C. and Silicon Valley. You can’t be dumb and function at a high level in Silicon Valley. Unless you have some kind of minority Pokemon points, you can’t be dumb, get into the Foreign Service, and thrive in it. You may not be a literal genius, true… but if these are midwits, they are high-end, 135+ midwits. The same is true of most ‘prestige’ journalists, even the worst of them.
This fallacy is dangerous because it makes you think it’s possible to take a benevolent, intelligent and energetic person who also really understands how the government runs, such as Dominic Cummings in the UK, and expect him to be able to make the machine work well.
It is a moot point whether the problem is the people, or the problem is the structure, or both. Either or both problems can only be addressed in one step — dissolving the whole thing. The question is moot because the action item does not change.
But when we personalize it our propaganda also seems nastier, perhaps more exciting, but aimed at a lower, bloodier pitch. My intuition is that this strategy is attractive but ineffective, which is why I prefer the cooler, clearer focus on structure.
Lomez: I have to object at least to the extent that there has been a noticeable decline, even in the decade or so I’ve spent working alongside the tip of the meritocratic spear, in the quality of mind and administrative capacity from the boomers to their Gen X and Millennial replacements. The new elite seem to be demonstrably less competent — less smart, too — in equal absolute value to being more ideologically zealous. Steve Sailer has likewise remarked that the largely Jewish braintrust that stewarded American liberalism through the second half of the 20th century, were, all else aside, a far more capable lot than who serves that role now. Something in the selection mechanism has gone wrong. I could offer countless examples, but suffice to say this sentiment is echoed by nearly everyone I talk to who has observed the changing of the guard over the course of this century.
Related to this problem, is how to raise a precocious kid under this new dispensation, with the understanding that the meritocratic process is broken and leads nowhere you’d want your loved one to end up. Do you raise your kid to speedrun the system and make as much money in as short a time as possible so they can at least be comfortable during the decline? Do you teach them to play along and adopt all of the fashionable moral trends so they can fit in? Do you teach them the way of the ‘anarch’? How does one navigate this labyrinth?
Curtis Yarvin: Yes, we’re certainly seeing a slow generational decline in the quality of the people, both average and peak. It’s just not enough to make anything actually happen, apart from just sucking more and more over time. And most of the suck is still from the system, not the people — bear in mind, the system is sucking more over time as well.
How to raise a kid in this environment? It always depends on the kid — their aptitudes, temperament, etc. There is no right answer. If they’re naturally rebellious your main concern is that they’ll rebel against you, so you should pretend not to care about politics and let the machine indoctrinate them — this has worked quite well for me. But it’s a high-wire act. And of course, I really haven’t gotten into either career or serious education yet. Again: it always depends on the kid!
Lomez: I am becoming aware of limitations on our time and on our readers’ attention, but before wrapping up this interview I would like to ask about your poetry. Poetry, of course, is something of a dead art, and most who try it end up writing cringe, which is at least partly why I was so blown away when I came across your poem Tubes, shortly after your wife’s passing. This is one of the best poems I have read, certainly the best new poem I have read in many years, and the others you’ve posted on your substack have also been of unusually high quality. And to my eye these don’t seem to have been a lucky accident; you have clearly spent time at this, honing your craft.
The question then is, where does your poetry fit into your larger intellectual work? Why is it important to you? Does it have any bearing on the political writing, perhaps as a way of personalizing these big theoretical abstractions you tend to write about? Is there something about the necessary verbal economy of poetry, versus your more discursive prose style, that helps sharpen your thoughts? What I mean is, tell me more about this poetic tendency.
Curtis Yarvin: A fan who is a fellow widower told me this poem brought back the exact experience of losing his wife, a very high compliment. I guess don’t read it if you don’t want that experience?
Almost all poetry is cringe, and mostly when it isn’t cringe it’s even worse. It is very hard to write a poem that isn’t cringe, and the worst way to do that is to try to write a poem that isn’t cringe. This is essentially all of midwit poetry — what they’ll teach you in a basic-bitch writers’ workshop. When you succeed you have this feeling: I am a poet. I have written a poem that isn’t cringe. There are various cheap tricks for achieving this, various forms of surrealism being the best.
But if you want to do it well, you have to not be cringe while not worrying about being cringe. My old poetry teacher — Mark Turpin, a student of Robert Pinsky — used to talk about the stakes of the poem. It has to take a risk — and generally, the only thing it can risk is being cringe.
I’m not sure it has much to do with the rest of my writing. It’s just something I’ve been doing off and on for thirty years. It helps that the early-to-mid 20th century, which is not that distant from us, was truly one of the historical peaks of the art — it may be dead, but it’s not long dead. Mark once brought Thom Gunn to our group; he liked my stuff (if not so much my meter) and we had a very memorable beer together in Cole Valley where he lived; I was going to send him more, but was it good enough? Then I was on an airplane and opened a paper and saw that he was dead. Ah, the literary life.