Curtis Yarvin’s name has been popping up a lot lately. In journalist Max Chafkin’s new book The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, Yarvin is described as the “house political philosopher” of right-wing billionaire Thiel’s “budding movement.” That label picked up some plausibility when two Thiel-funded Senate candidates, one successful (Ohio’s J. D. Vance) and one not (Arizona’s Blake Masters) expressed admiration for Yarvin on the 2022 campaign trail.
Many people would call Yarvin a “fascist.” Ask him, and he’ll deny it — though not by professing his love for the universalist ideals of the Enlightenment, but by pointing out that “autocratic” ideals were common long before the birth of fascism.
However precisely you classify his ideology, Curtis Yarvin is bad news. He’s a racialist crackpot openly contemptuous of democracy, and it’s disturbing to see a billionaire, two politicians, and a prominent cable news host nodding along to Yarvin’s nonsense.
What I find even more disturbing, though, is that when you strip away the layers of right-wing edgelordery, the basic thrust of Yarvin’s case against democracy isn’t especially foreign to the US mainstream. The idea that the masses are too stupid for self-rule is already a core belief of the bipartisan establishment. Yarvin, in his own deeply unpleasant way, just says the quiet part loud.
What Yarvin Believes
I debated Yarvin two months ago in Chicago and came away with the strong impression that he enjoys shock value a whole lot more than he cares about clarity or internal consistency. Yarvin often calls himself a “monarchist.” If you catch him when he’s trying to sound reasonable, he’ll explain that all he means by that is we should have a much stronger presidency within the existing constitutional system. If he’s trying to be provocative, he’ll talk about finding a suitable Silicon Valley CEO to be the American “Augustus,” replacing our sclerotic republic with something new and glorious.
The “provocative” mode is one he seems to have spent more time in than not since he started his Unqualified Reservations blog (under his old pen name “Mencius Moldbug”) in 2007. Before our debate in Chicago, he joked two or three times in my presence that the subject of our back-and-forth would be whether “it was really six million or more like five point five.”
During the debate itself, with cameras rolling, he insisted that I was a fool for thinking the social and economic policies that yield such good outcomes in countries like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden would work in a country like Haiti, where the “people” have a different character. Just look at what a basket case it is! (Reality check: Current conditions in Haiti aren’t exactly hard to understand if you know literally anything about what’s been done to that country over the last couple of centuries.) Asked point blank by the moderator whether he thought the explanation for Haitian dysfunctionality was cultural or genetic, Yarvin evaded the question, saying he didn’t know how to test the difference.
For Yarvin in his “reasonable” mode, you can watch his back-and-forth with Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks. There, he rolled out a couple arguments he’s made elsewhere: that the Founding Fathers intended presidents to have as much unilateral power as CEOs have in corporations, and that since the only election people truly care about is the presidential race, concentrating all power in the hands of the executive would really, if you think about it, be the most democratic thing to do. But he tried to give this all a Young Turks–friendly twist by saying that Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was a great example of a president who ruled like a “monarch.” Sure, he had to get his New Deal programs past Congress, but Congress was a rubber stamp for King Roosevelt.
The germ of truth in Yarvin’s strange argument is that the gradual consolidation of executive power (what historians call “the imperial presidency”) really did start in this period — particularly with the World War II–era expansion of the military and intelligence service. But in calling FDR a “dictator” (recapping a characterization thrown around by the most hysterical portions of the Right in the 1930s and ’40s), Yarvin is conflating the very different questions of institutional power and political effectiveness.
Congress acted as a “rubber stamp” to FDR, to the extent that it did, because his agenda was wildly popular. At least during the first years of the New Deal, even many conservative-leaning congressmen weren’t prepared to anger their constituents by voting against FDR’s proposals. That’s not monarchy or “democratic monarchy.” That’s representative democracy.
An example much closer to what Yarvin is talking about — or at least what he says in his “reasonable” mode — is the administration of George W. Bush, who really did dramatically and unilaterally boost the institutional power of the presidency. Whereas FDR went to Congress for a declaration of war after the Pearl Harbor attack, Bush pronounced the entire planet one big battlefield in the “war on terror.” He set up a global network of “black sites” where suspected terrorists were detained without trial and tortured. He started a program of mass spying on the US public, and outside of US borders he established the practice — subsequently enlarged by Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump — of simply ordering terrorism suspects executed without trial by unmanned drones.
That’s a much less positive legacy than the New Deal. But it’s what presidents seizing monarch-like powers looks like.
Yarvin vs. the Cathedral
Yarvin’s dodge about how absolute presidential power would amount to “democratic monarchy” or “monarchist democracy” because voters only care about presidential elections is hard to square with his frequent statements that the United States not only isn’t but shouldn’t be a democracy. And as soon as Yarvin starts talking about “the Cathedral,” he’s given away the game.
Yarvin likes to say that Jeff Bezos doesn’t really own the Washington Post — he just “sponsors” it. Yarvin thinks it’s the newsroom that holds the power. “The Cathedral” is Yarvin’s term for the layer of elite journalists and academics who he claims mold public opinion and ultimately dictate the direction of society. And the real reason we need a leader willing to be more of a “monarch” than George W. Bush — besides Augustus, Yarvin’s preferred historical examples are Napoleon and Lenin — is precisely that such a figure could operate independently of the whims of public opinion and hence break the power of the Cathedral.
Some of what Yarvin says about the Cathedral is akin to taking Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s “propaganda model” — which analyzes how corporate media sets the limits of acceptable debate — and stripping that model of everything that makes it make sense. Chomsky and Herman focus on media ownership as an essential part of the story. Yarvin asks his listeners to ignore the billionaire behind the curtain — pretending not to understand that (a) Bezos could fire and replace the editors at the Washington Post any time he felt like it, and more importantly (b) they wouldn’t have made it to those positions in the first place if they saw the world in a way that threatened the interests of anyone rich enough to buy the Post.
Chomsky and Herman also identify anti-communism as an animating impulse of corporate media propaganda. Yarvin refuses to make distinctions between Marxists and the editorial board of the New York Times. Everything to the left of Peter Thiel (or maybe to the left of Klemens von Metternich) is lumped into one giant category intent on moving society in an insidiously “progressive” direction.
Sometimes Yarvin lapses into the common conservative belief that “Joe Sixpack” — a phrase he used in his debate with me — is secretly conservative. But more often he thinks Mr Sixpack’s beliefs are simply molded by the Cathedral.
In real life, counterexamples to both these generalizations are everywhere. Opinion polls show, for example, that most Americans believe Joe Biden should do more to pursue a peace settlement with Vladimir Putin, even if Ukraine would have to make some compromises in the process. Does anyone anywhere think this is a result of American mainstream media propagandizing for de-escalation and peace talks?
And redistributive economic policies like Medicare for All and a higher minimum wage enjoy a surprising amount of support, even among some Republican voters. During the last presidential election, for example, Trump won Florida — but a ballot measure mandating a $15 minimum wage prevailed by more than Trump did. So does Yarvin think progressives in the media hypnotized a bunch of Trump voters into supporting the minimum wage measure — even though the Cathedral was unable to convince them not to vote for Trump?
Saying the Quiet Part Loud
Much of Yarvin’s worldview is eccentric — closer to what you find in the moldier corners of Reddit than in the rhetoric of any mainstream figure. Even politicians who fearmonger the most aggressively about immigrants and “Black Lives Matter rioters” feel the need to deny that they’re racists, for example, and in 2002 I never heard anyone say that Bush should seize as much personal power as Napoleon or Augustus.
But there’s a core of Yarvin’s stance on democracy that’s very much not foreign to the American mainstream. And I’m not just talking about Republican politicians who want to ban books and make it harder to vote.
Does Yarvin believe “Joe Sixpack” to be incapable of self-government? So does everyone who supports America’s economic status quo, in which most people take orders from unelected bosses during the eight hours a day they’re at work — in most cases without even the limited voice workers can get in capitalist workplaces by organizing a union.
Does Yarvin believe that ordinary people are too stupid to decide for themselves what to believe? So does every mainstream liberal who believes that it’s important that Twitter and Facebook and Spotify sort out truth from falsehood so they can censor “misinformation.”
I’m not suggesting that Yarvin is no worse than mainstream liberals — or even mainstream conservatives. In important ways, Yarvin is much worse. I find it disturbing that people like Senator-elect J. D. Vance acknowledge him as an influence. But such comparisons shouldn’t blind us to the disturbing commonalities between Yarvin and less eccentric conservatives and even liberals. Yarvin’s edgelord bluntness drives him to openly express what’s implicit in far more mainstream ideas.
If you believe that all of us should have a say in the way our society is run — that it’s wrong to force anyone to live under rules they have no role in shaping — then Yarvin is certainly your enemy. But a lot of people who don’t say these things as crassly as “Mencius Moldbug” are your enemies, too.