Neoreactionaries Part Three
4 April 2014
The second part of the Neoreactionary worldview is the idea that the Progressive ideology (or, avoiding their terminology, modern society) has some feedback loops that lead to perverse outcomes. These feedback loops are all understood to exist by mainstream thinkers, but Neoreactionaries believe the problem is much worse than is generally thought, and that the problem belies a fundamental flaw in Progressive ideology.
I think here it would be best to start with a few examples. There are a few different categories:
1. The government provides funding to academia. Government funding for academia is often directed based on policy recommendations that come from academics. They also avoid funding things that would potentially contradict current government policy or show current policy to be poor policy. Academia can thus be corrupted into trying to produce research results that attract government funding, rather than trying to produce research results that are correct, thus bolstering poor government policy.
2. The media influences public opinion. Public opinion determines election outcomes, which has a large influence on government. Thus if the government is able to influence the media, the government can short-circuit the democratic process and enact policies against the public interest, hide its errors, etc.
3. Academia performs two functions, research and education. Research is meant to determine what is true and expand knowledge. Education is meant to teach people parts of the corpus of human knowledge. It is generally accepted that everyone should be educated as much as reasonably possible (this is a Progressive value). Thus if academia introduces something false on the research side, the same institution can proceed to teach the falsehood on the education side; and as everyone goes through academia, this propagates the falsehood throughout all of society. This can also occur with values or ideas rather than facts, if people conflate academic consensus with truth (as often happens).
I think it’s interesting that Scott Alexander basically doesn’t talk about this at all in his Anti-Reactionary FAQ (except in 5.7 on the specific question of whether our education system indoctrinates our youth with Progressive values). I imagine this is because he didn’t really view it as central to the Neoreactionary position, or else he didn’t have any really solid general criticism of it and didn’t want to battle over emotionally charged and complex case examples. It seemed to me that the issue of these mechanisms is a critical and fundamental element of some of the major points of the Neoreactionary position, namely that nothing is as it seems (The Matrix, red pill, etc.) and that Progressivism is a bad system.
Anyway, as I said in the first paragraph, I think it is indisputable that these problems occur in various parts of the world on varying degrees of scale. Climate science is an example of #1. Race-related social studies are also probably an example. McCarthyism is an example of #2, or if you want something more recent, you can try the persecution of Julian Assange. Russia also performed this sort of operation in the course of the annexation of Crimea. Japanese WWII revisionism is the prime example of #3.
It is also indisputable that (1) the existence of these feedback mechanisms is a reason to be skeptical of any “consensus” that comes out of the establishment that is not backed by transparently conducted analytical science.
This is obviously quite different from the relatively extreme Neoreactionary idea that (2) the existence of these feedback mechanisms is justification for wiping the slate clean and discarding all academic and social consensus of the past couple of centuries until it has been re-examined and subjected to proper standards of evaluation.
I don’t think this Neoreactionary response is appropriate. It seems like an overreaction, even if it is the case that these problems are much more frequent than is generally known. Moldbug uses the American Revolution as his base example and claims that if even this fundamental story of the origin of America is a fiction, everything can be thrown out. But even if we do accept his version of the history, it’s not as obvious to me as it is to him why the mainstream understanding of American history being wrong should shake our belief in such things as modern monetary policy or genetics or history of a different period like the McCarthy era or the Holocaust.
To be fair, I think many Neoreactionaries do not go this far. Even Moldbug, when he brings up other issues where he thinks the Cathedral has pulled the wool over the world’s eyes, provides specific and relevant evidence (or at least arguments) for his claims, in addition to his “everything you thought you knew is wrong” baseline. Using (1) as your starting point for questioning the mainstream account of various issues, especially when you have a case for a feedback problem existing for that specific issue, are doing something that seems to me both reasonable and valuable.
The important point here, though, is the idea that these feedback problems are a fundamental and fatal flaw of Progressivism. I think in the Anti-Reactionary FAQ Scott just misses this idea, and it’s a bit unfortunate that he does, because I think he would have written a better counterargument to it than what I’m about to produce. My contention is that Progressivism has built in mechanisms for self-correction, so that these perversions are likely to eventually go away. As such, the existence of these feedback mechanisms is a flaw, but not a crippling flaw.
I think academia is central to all of this. The ideological supremacy of academia is a big part of the Neoreactionary story of Progressivism, and in the ideological sense the justification for the supremacy of academia is that the business of academia is the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of truth is a high ideal and thus valid justification for all kinds of behavior. This is actually problematic for Neoreactionaries, because even if we can have temporary perversions where the establishment disseminates false “truths”, the fact that Truth is a central ideal means that there is huge reward for whistleblowing. Every time there is a major example of wrongheadedness in academia, the first successful person or people to challenge it and turn people towards the right track goes down in history as one of the greatest scholars or activists of all time. It might be posthumous and there’s a lot of risk (some people just get crushed – Snowden or Assange might end up being viewed as heroes by a later generation, but Aaron Swartz paid for similar convictions with his life and he will be forgotten).
The most dramatic modern sign of this kind of progress is the movement towards improving academic research standards and design in order to improve the overall accuracy and meaningfulness of academic research output. If I had to name one individual who has been very influential in these developments, I’d point out John Ioannidis, who, notably, has not been completely destroyed by the mainstream academic community, because instead of trying to challenge a specific bad position held by the establishment, he instead appealed to the Truth ideal and went after the methods used to generate and promulgate faulty academic conclusions.
Also, when these false “truths” get in the way of corporate profits, free markets have strong potential to shoot them down. This is encoded in Progressivism via the values of hard work and efficiency. In our current system, companies that make more money will grow, those who are responsible for it will become rich and powerful, and others will try to copy their methods. As a result, companies put a lot of effort into such things as understanding how to make people work more efficiently, how to move things quickly and efficiently, what cheaper materials or tools they can find for their needs, etc. Again, nefarious linkage between corporations and government may result in perversions where a particular company’s methods become dominant despite being inferior, but if some firm can break that hold, the rewards are enormous. (Note, Neoreactionaries don’t often make a lot of noise about this particular feedback loop, because Progressives are already aware of it, but it’s still part of the picture.)
Truth is a lofty concept, but in practice both science and capitalism are more concerned with having the most accurate possible understanding of the world, and that’s a decent approximation of truth in most practical cases. It seems that Progressivism favors pursuit of the most accurate possible understanding of the world, and I would hazard that that is a major factor explaining why Progressivism has been successful in spreading at the expense of other ideologies which are less interested in such pursuits. Most traditional religions and Soviet Communism are great examples of ideologies that were not competitive in the long run because they fail to effectively motivate society to move to a more accurate understanding of the world.
What I can salvage out of the Neoreactionary criticism is the following: Progressivism does have this problem, and in some cases the perversion may be dramatic and may last for a long time (generations). A system which is either better at self-correction, or less prone to developing these feedback cycles, may be superior to Progressivism. Therefore, the idea that we could, at least in theory, avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering and/or experience more rapid technological advance under a different ideological regime still seems to be a supportable claim according to my understanding of these matters.
I don’t think it’s necessary for my current purposes to get into specific cases, but I also think that Neoreactionaries are right in that this kind of problem is more widespread than Progressive thinkers generally understand. But I still believe that these problems can be addressed within the system, and that skepticism within the system is underdone and valuable while total skepticism of the system itself is unproductive and unjustified.