Reading, Watching 09.14
Plus ça change.
I’m still on vacation, but I wanted to make some brief comments on recent articles.—
First, in Mother Jones, Ali Bleland writes “A Peter Thiel-Linked Startup Is Courting New York Scenesters and Plotting a Libertarian Paradise.” The goal of the company in question, Praxis, is political, in the most literal and ancient sense of the term: it was set up to found a polis, a city-state of its own: —
Praxis, a for-profit corporation, was founded as Bluebook Cities in 2019 by Californian Dryden Brown and former Boston College wide receiver Charlie Callinan. They envisioned an autonomous enclave where the free-market dreams of Chicago and Austrian school economists would become reality, a place libertarians could settle without the tyranny of regulation. While the project draws inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome, Brown, the company’s CEO, said in a 2021 interview that its style would be “hero futurism” with a “neo-Gilded Age kind of aesthetic.”
For Peter Thiel, who is funding the project, this idea of an exit from society—largely because women, poor people, and minorities have too much power in a democracy—is one long-term pet project. In 2009, he wrote for the Cato Unbound blog:
The critical question then becomes one of means, of how to escape not via politics but beyond it. Because there are no truly free places left in our world, I suspect that the mode for escape must involve some sort of new and hitherto untried process that leads us to some undiscovered country; and for this reason I have focused my efforts on new technologies that may create a new space for freedom.
The article portrays Praxis, located in downtown Manhattan, as part of Thiel’s culture war strategy of deliberately infiltrating, influencing, or replacing cultural avant-gardes. It is also clearly a reactionary modernist project if there ever was one: an attempt to use technology to reconstitute society on a hierarchical and authoritarian basis. Former employees describe Brown, the founder of the company, as interested in a “strange Nazi occultism,” recommending they read Julius Evola and even used his thought as company doctrine. As I wrote in my piece on Peter Thiel’s fascism last July:
These dweebish fantasies of power and domination might appear especially pathetic to us, but they are not really different in kind from the ones that animated the original fascists. See for example Nicholas-Goodrick Clarke’s excellent The Occult Roots of Nazism, his history of the odd world of fantasists and cranks who created the “dream-world” of Nazism, fantasies that contained “elitism and purity, a sense of mission in the face of conspiracy, and millenarian vision of a felicitous national future.” (At this point, one might propose another “hyphenated fascism:” dork-fascism or nerd-fascism or dweeb-fascism, as you like.)
Not to put too fine a point on it: — These people are Nazis.
In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore reviews Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk.
Elon Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1971. His grandfather J. N. Haldeman was a staunch anti-Communist from Canada who in the nineteen-thirties and forties had been a leader of the anti-democratic and quasi-fascist Technocracy movement. (Technocrats believed that scientists and engineers should rule.) “In 1950, he decided to move to South Africa,” Isaacson writes, “which was still ruled by a white apartheid regime.” In fact, apartheid had been declared only in 1948, and the regime was soon recruiting white settlers from North America, promising restless men such as Haldeman that they could live like princes. Isaacson calls Haldeman’s politics “quirky.” In 1960, Haldeman self-published a tract, “The International Conspiracy to Establish a World Dictatorship & the Menace to South Africa,” that blamed the two World Wars on the machinations of Jewish financiers.
Some qualification has to added here. Yes, apartheid was only established in 1948, but that doesn’t mean pre-independence South Africa was a racially egalitarian society: apartheid was a legal re-imposition and codification of a pre-existing racist order. But, in short, what this says is that Musk grew up in a family of reactionary modernists who were also antisemites and ideologically committed to apartheid. Writing about the “Emerging Tech-Lash” last Spring, I called Musk and Thiel’s political and business ideology baaskap, borrowing an Afrikaans term for white supremacy.
A brief sidenote: It might even be worth thinking of apartheid itself as something of a reactionary modernist project.— As Dan O’Meara writes in his Volkskapitalisme: Class, capital and ideology in the development of Afrikaner nationalism, 1934-1948, that while apartheid sought on the ideological level to protect the pre-existing order, it also lead to the rapid development of capital in South Africa:
The intensely repressive character of the apartheid state has been documented in texts too numerous to cite, and is well known. By the early 1960s, draconian security legislation seemed to have broken the back of mass resistance and created the conditions of stability which led to a sustained economic boom from 1963 to 1972, and a rate of return on invested capital which was the highest in the world. Thus, far from representing the triumph of the pre-capitalist frontier which undermined capitalism, as the conventional wisdom has it, the apartheid policies of the NP were a product of the particular character of capitalist development in South Africa and acted as a spur to rapid capital accumulation in a given historical phase of South African capitalism. They created the political conditions for expansion so that, in the period 1948 to 1970, of all the capitalist economies only that of Japan expanded more rapidly than apartheid South Africa.
If you want to imagine the sort of state and society the Thiels and Musks could impose if they had their way, probably something like a post-modern version of apartheid South Africa is a closer approximation than, say, Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. I will elaborate in the future.
Isaacson’s bio reveals what has long been suspected: that his takeover of Twitter is an explicitly political project. He blamed the site for turning his daughter trans and making her a Communist.
Musk is also leaning into the antisemitic part of these politics lately, too, with his recent attacks on the Anti-Defamation League, which he blames for ruining Twitter’s ad revenues. David Austin Walsh writes about this in the Times. Now, it is quite difficult for people on the left to defend the ADL wholeheartedly for a host of reasons, but it’s important to recognize the content of these politics: he is using an online antisemitic mob to further his interests. I had pointed to this emerging possibility in October.
If you detect a slight note of “I told you so” in my highlighting of these articles, you are correct.
Being in France, I decided to revisit Faith Hillis’s terrific paper “The “Franco-Russian Marseillaise”: International Exchange and the Making of Antiliberal Politics in Fin de Siècle France.” In it, Hillis describes a radical antisemitic and anti-democratic politics that emerged in the high society salons of late 19th century and early 20th century Paris. The primary object of this activism to forge an alliance between republican France and autocratic Russia against Germany, but its politics would fully crystallize during the Drefyus Affair. This is how Hillis paints the circle surrounding the socialite Juliet Adam, a figure started on the republican left before contributing to the synthesis of a new hybrid ideology:
By the mid-1880s, however, the French members of Adam’s circle, like their Russian interlocutors, had begun to converge around an antirepublican consensus. Disavowing her liberal past, the salonnière lamented that France’s republican democracy had produced an “antinational” impulse no less destructive than a foreign invasion.116 Andrieux, for his part, complained that the entire constitutional-parliamentary experiment had produced only “financial disorder, … anarchy in the administration, … isolation in foreign affairs, … [and] the enervation [énervement] of all national forces.” “Democracy and parliamentarism,” he argued, were fundamentally incompatible.117 Rochefort, who had grown increasingly troubled by France’s economic inequality, charged that the republic had degenerated into a dictatorship of high finance that was incapable of realizing its democratic aspirations.118
In their agitation against the republic, the French members of Adam’s network often blamed the nation’s frailty and social inequality on Jews. A short-lived newspaper launched by the salonnière in 1884 proudly advertised its “antisemitic” views, portraying Jews as agents of both capitalist exploitation and revolutionary disorder in both Russia and France.119 Rochefort’s furious denunciations of the corruption and greed inherent in the capitalist system devolved into antisemitic attacks against the Jewish financial interests that had supposedly destroyed the republic’s ideals.120
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.