Blood and the Machine
The Return of Reactionary Modernism
Last April, I wrote that we were witnessing the tech capitalist class’s turn to reactionary politics. This was largely inspired by Musk’s plan to purchase Twitter, which I took to be more of a political project than a business one. Or rather, I believed that the political and business cases were intertwined: the owners wanted to reassert direct control of their businesses, break the power of employees they viewed as “woke,” and that this was undergirded up by a larger social and political ideology I called “bossism” at the time, basically a rather crude, hierarchical vision of society run by a “natural” elite. In July, I wrote that the proper name for Peter Thiel’s politics was Fascism. In October, I wrote about the connection between Musk’s bossist program and his apparent tolerance or even encouragement of Kanye West’s antisemitism.
I believe these takes have largely been borne out by the facts and this reactionary turn in Silicon Valley continues to crystallize. Musk has now attempted—albeit in a rather ham fisted way—to use his platform directly for politics with his endorsement of Ron DeSantis. He has given Tucker Carlson a new home. Of course, none of this is really new. Observers have long noted that alongside the ostensibly liberal utopian aspirations of the “California ideology” there has been a darker current of authoritarian thought. See for instance, Corey Pein’s 2014 classic in The Baffler, “Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich.” Then there was also Mark Zuckerberg’s literal Caesarism. But it seems like this species of reaction has become an increasingly dominant political tendency within the tech industry. The Right has noticed this as well. Take for instance Richard Hanania’s recent Substack piece “Understanding the Tech Right.”
Hanania, an open racist of the Stormfront variety who is ensconsced in mainstream institutions, is one of the most loathsome of the youngish right-wing intellectuals, but he has the virtue of being completely without tact or discretion and is therefore unable to be coy about his views. For instance, he is very enthused that it’s so easy to boost race science, his pet cause, on Musk’s Twitter. He’s borrowed the unfortunate acronym TESCREAL—Transhumanism, Extropianism, Singularitarianism, Cosmism, Rationalism, Effective Altruism, and Longtermism—from Timnit Gebru and Emil Torres to identify the ideology crystallizing within Silicon Valley:
Gebru and Torres are easy to mock, but they’re generally correct that there’s something very interesting happening in tech. In addition to Musk buying Twitter and boosting data on race and crime, one can point to the long-running intellectual and political activity of Peter Thiel, Andreessen and Balaji as openly right-wing pundits, Brian Armstrong shutting down woke activism at his company, and David Sacks and Joe Lonsdale joining Elon as major supporters of DeSantis. Last year, you even had Bezos putting out some anti-Biden tweets. One can consider Vivek as part of this shift too, with his background in bio-tech. There are also conservatives in the industry who usually don’t discuss their views publicly but are Republican donors, a category that includes Douglas Leone of Sequoia Capital, former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and current CEO Safra Catz. Substack itself was created to explicitly push back against leftist suppression of speech. While it wouldn’t be correct to say that most tech entrepreneurs are conservative, the industry has produced a large share of right-wing thinkers and activists of a higher stature than what we’re used to.
What’s so exciting to Hanania about this “tech right” is its combination of radical anti-egalitarianism, often with an explicitly biological basis, and its interest in technological progress. This is not a traditionalist, religious right with anti-modernist biases. What Hanania has unwittingly discovered, and what is much more felicitous and economical concept than the awful “TESCREAL,” is reactionary modernism. This is the tradition identified in Jeffrey Herf’s 1984 book Reactionary Modernism: Technology, culture, and politics in Weimar and the Third Reich. Herf noticed that what typified the thought of the Conservative Revolutionaries and a set of right-wing engineers in Weimar and then the ideologists of the Third Reich was not a rejection of modernity so much as the search for an alternative modernity: a vision of high technics and industrial productivity without liberalism, democracy, and egalitarianism. Technology in the service of a hierarchical society and an authoritarian politics, or rather, hierarchical society and authoritarian politics in the service of technology, as the correct pathway to unfettered progress and development. Herf extended the concept to include the futurist Marinetti in Italy, Wyndham Lewis in Britain, and Henry Ford in the United States. We can see many of the themes of the reactionary modernist tradition popping up in the contemporary tech world, from what the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called Ungleichzeitigkeit—non-contemporaneity—the coxistence of the archaic and the futuristic, in Curtis Yarvin’s techno-monarchism, to what Klaus Theweleit called the “utopia of the totally mechanized body” in the so-called “rationalist community,” transhumanists, and sadistic A.I. fetishism.
The contemporary exponents of reactionary modernism are more or less aware of this lineage. Not all of its features are manifest in every adherent. Peter Thiel, who knows his Schmitt and Spengler, is the most politically self-conscious of this set and is a nearly ideal-typical case of reactionary modernism. He even adopts some of its paradoxically “anti-capitalist” themes, like the rejection of market logic and competition in favor of a monopolistic model of industry. Elon Musk, not much of an intellectual and sharing Henry Ford’s bumbling inarticulateness, seems to have stumbled his way into reactionary modernism through his general sensibility and being gradually “red pilled.” Then there all the lesser figures, like the “rationalists” who have become “postrationalists” and started mucking about with the occult.
The frame of reactionary modernism can also help us understand the openness to biological racism and antisemitism within the tech oligarch set. I previously wrote that Musk’s tolerance of antisemitism was the result of a growing open vulgarity of the tech bourgeoisie, a willingness to adopt any weapon, no matter how crude, in the preservation and expansion of their social and political power. Now, in the wake of Tucker Carlson’s openly antisemitic Twitter video about Zelensky, Musk’s Soros tweets, and his palling around with antisemites on Twitter, I wonder if we should not consider a more structural interpretation. For the reactionary modernists, technology represented the positive, concrete, productive aspects of capitalism that should be preserved and encouraged, while the Jew could stand for the parasitic, financialized, and abstract side of capital. Opposed to the creative energy of the entrepreneur and engineer was the “Jewish” merchant or banker.—Say, the Thiels and Musks vs. the Soroses.
Moishe Postone found the basis of this in the very form of the commodity itself: “When one examines the specific characteristics of the power attributed to the Jews by modern anti-Semitism—abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility—it is striking that they are all characteristics of the value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx.” Marx’s famous notion of commodity fetish described the division of the world into “use-values” and “exchange-values:” the “romantic anti-capitalism” implicit in antisemitism allows for the embrace of the “useful” side of capitalism while envisioning a social order without the alienating, abstract side:
On the logical level of capital, this "double character" allows industrial production to appear as a purely material, creative process, separable from capital. Industrial capital then appears as the linear descendent of "natural" artisanal labor, in opposition to "parasitic" finance capital. Whereas the former appears "organically rooted," the latter does not. Capital itself - or what is understood as the negative aspect of capitalism - is understood only in terms of the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital. In this sense, the biological interpretation, which opposes the concrete dimension (of capitalism) as "natural" and "healthy" to "capitalism" (as perceived), does not stand in contradiction to a glorification of industrial capital and technology. Both are on the "thingly" side of the antinomy.
Biological racism and technics occupy a similar structural position as something “real:” “blood and the machine are seen as concrete counter-principles to the abstract. The positive emphasis on "nature," on blood, the soil, concrete labor, and Gemeinschaft, can go easily hand in hand with the glorification of technology and industrial capital.” We should also consider Thiel’s anti-market monopolism and endorsement of nationalistic state interventionism in this light: “The identification of capital with the manifest abstract overlaps, in part, with its identification with the market. The attack on the liberal state, as abstract, can further the development of the interventionist state, as concrete.”
This may be difficult for people to swallow, but the apparently accidental and spontaneous recreation of these reactionary modernist themes suggests to me that the cause is on a deeper level than the mere proclivities of the individuals involved. It seems to like something within the social and political conjuncture is giving rise to these symptoms. “Why now?” is a question I think I should leave for another time. I also think that while classical fascism and antisemitism might not be the ultimate form these tech politics take, it will spit out something like fascism and antisemitism, some highly authoritarian politics combined with extreme conspiratorial paranoia about malign races pulling the strings.