Ideological Evolution: Notes on New Books and Post-Libertarianism

I signed a contract for my second book last week. It’s nowhere near finished but it’s been really encouraging to know that, when it’s ready, someone wants it.

Unfortunately, the idea for it is not the only idea I have and, as soon as that initial idea was given an officiating stamp as an asset, it’s the other idea I’ve felt myself being pulled towards…

But this is also a sign of the times.

I want to write up a patchwork book — there’s certainly enough blog material ready to hammer one into shape — but I don’t want it to be a book about what patchwork favours and hopes to achieve. I’m not sure anyone but a specific few would appreciate that. What I want to do is some ideological groundwork.

Where has this idea come from and why? Not just in the sense of its antecedents in other political philosophies but why has it specifically grown out of the American West — be that Silicon Valley or the Wild West (and, indeed, what’s the relationship — if any — between the two.) I also want to ask why the ground patchwork has grown out of is worth people understanding more than I think they presently do.

These questions may be a lot more obvious to my American readers but I also think it’s worth affirming just how batshit crazy the rest of the world thinks you are. Not just because you’ve got a history of reality-distorting presidents but in a more general sense. The rest of the world does not understand you. It might be in its own interests, however, as America’s political influence continues to pass between governments by osmosis, to get smart about what’s going on in that collective unconscious of yours.

This takes some unpacking. Although the mainstream and cosmopolitan media in the United States presents a picture of the political landscape that is largely recognisable to the rest of the West — in that an American left-bourgeoisie is as recognisably post-European as much of American’s left-leaning political establishment has always been — it’s the underbelly of US domestic politics that we don’t see or really know how to compute.

Whereas the UK has Blobby, the US has the frontier and, despite declarations to the contrary, it has not gone away. As an analogy for the state, it has certainly putrefied and turned itself inside out, but it still exists deep within the American unconscious.

Under quarantine, I’ve been reading two books side by side that demonstrate this acutely.

The legacy of the Wild West needs to be better understood — not just in terms of the “myth” (the convenient compartmentalising and organising of America’s best loved and most shameful histories) but also in terms of how its central tenets have mutated into other forms of political reality that remain potent battlegrounds for the left and right today — as well as battlegrounds where the usual sense of “left” and “right” is being left behind.

There is an ideological evolution to be traced.

On the one hand — as Greg Grandin points out in his book The End of the Myth — there is a governmental frontierism that has decayed and inverted itself; on the other, there is the sense in which the frontier’s viral qualities have jumped species — as demonstrated by Cody Wilson’s incredible post-libertarian “guide to free thinking” — from the sorting of difference in space to that other still-fledging dimension altogether: cyberspace.

A large part of why I find the Wild West so interesting appeared in Egress — and there’s a comment in there about why the state-consolidating political class that closed the frontier has always been recognisably post-European — but I also think there’s an amorphous American libertarianism that is permeating outwards into the world but isn’t being digested so well by other nation-states. (I’d argue Brexit is the perfect example of something that was mutated through a diffuse Americanisation and entered our political system’s digestive tract only to become a kidney stone.) But this Americanisation isn’t just something that the right is welcoming. It is also something that the left is actively resisting and that may be part of the reason why we are being left behind in large parts of the world’s political consciousness.

In this part of the Internet, for instance, we can see this happening with a bunch of controversial political commentators and bloggers. Mencius Moldbug might be the perfect example.

An old post of mine still gets a lot of traffic, in which I commented on the fact someone told me Moldbug was #YangGang now. Someone else told me recently that his most recent essay on the coronavirus had pissed off the political right more than the left.

And lest we forget Nick Land’s recent slap-down of Black Cat, whose own patchwork writings glaze over this central kernel of Moldbug’s writings altogether, to their own detriment:

… Moldbug is transparently a post-libertarian. [1]

… Private government (the consistent thread within NRx) is not even tangentially a fascist (or ‘post-fascist’) idea. [2]

Post-libertarianism is most often thought about as a kind of horseshoe theory — the space between the far left and the far right is becoming permeable, as a result of some sort of continental drift — but I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s a kind of political thinking, in the United States specifically — and I think it is a kind of political thought that is presently most applicable to the US — that has jumped to Level 2.

If we don’t follow it, it’ll only end up playing us down the line. It’s not like it takes much excavating though. Simply following the cultural trajectory of — the twists and turns that have mutated, again and again and again — the genre of the American Western, reveals to us the shifting conditions that have led us to where we are.

I’ll get round to doing just that eventually… Maybe sooner than I think… But expect a few glossing missives like this in the meantime as I continue to try and figure this out for myself…


  1. Sounds like a really cool project! And appropriately mysterious.

    Not sure if this rec is helpful or not with what you’re looking at, but have you read Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture”? It’s a really fascinating of how the ‘frontierist’ wing of the 60s counterculture was the seedbed for what later blossomed into the early Silicon Valley culture. Lots of interesting tendrils float through this, like the history of cybernetics and the way that complex systems theory became ‘business speak’.

    1. Yes! Thanks. That’d been on my list but hadn’t checked it out yet. I’ll bump up nearer the top!

      1. Cool, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it! Turner’s ‘prequel’ book — “The Democratic Surround” is very interesting too, if a little threadbare at times in comparison to “From Counterculture to Cyberculture”… the basic thrust of the argument there isn’t that the 60s counterculture can’t be read as a pure rejection of the postwar government-economic consensus, but that many of its core values and even forms of aesthetic experimentation emerged from the sort of ‘world-building’ efforts that took off immediately after WW2. These builders were an unusual cast of characters — scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and the early cyberneticians (there’s a big historical overlap here with what gets sketched by Reinhold Martin in his book “Organizational Complex” — the postwar collision between American scientists and sociologists and the remnants of the avant-garde to produce a new form of ‘organization’ capable of adjusting society to a rapid pace of change). But what is lacking in the transit between the two books is an effective account of how and why the mutation happened: how do we get from the very globally-oriented, technocratic designs of these builders to some kind of hallucinatory, Leslie Fielder-esque environs of the mid-late 60s, with its visions of a new frontier?

        1. That’s really interesting. That’s partly what I’m interested to explore — how and why these mutations happened. My hunch is that it is the result of a broader cultural development — influences from elsewhere making themselves more felt. That’s very vague but it is also underdeveloped. I’ll try write something up and I’ll bare these comments in mind whilst I’m reading it!

Leave a Reply