Nihilistic Accelerationism

The currently favored meme among "shitposting" alt-righters is "clown world." That sentence is packed with references that will be unknown to many, and obsolete in a year, so let's briefly unpack it.

"Shitposting" refers to the practice of making largely unserious and frequently irreverent social media posts that one wouldn't necessarily want one's family or professional colleagues to see. For example, if I wanted to inundate the world wide web with pictures of the "circle game," my family would quickly grow tired of the gag, and my colleagues would think I was puerile. But, if I create an alternate social media profile, calling myself "RyLo Ken" or something, then I can post as many lame "circle game" pictures as I want to. Voila. Shitposting. Some people post inflammatory political content on their "shitposting account," some post lots of dad jokes, some post other dumb things.

Alt-righters are an ambiguous lot of people. They are predominantly of a conservative or right-wing political bent, but where the traditional right-winger is pretty serious about traditional, conservative morality (e.g. religious-based morality and straight-laced social presentation), alt-righters are essentially reverse-accelerationists. They have come to embrace the worst aspects of fringe left-wing culture in hopes of exaggerating it and hastening its ultimate demise. The classic alt-right example of this is overt racism: alt-righters start by embracing left wing notions of identity politics and intersectionalism, and then apply those theories to white males, resulting in white supremacy. It's not clear to me whether the alt-right's point is to literally embrace white supremacy or to simply use white supremacy as a means of making identity politics so intolerable to the left that identity politics are ultimately defeated. If the alt-right were to openly state that their embrace of identity politics is all an accelerationist ruse, that would render the point moot. So the world must unfortunately wait to see whether the alt-right was ever serious about white supremacy.

This brings us to "clown world," a series of memes in which Pepe the Frog (and anyone else, really) is depicted wearing a red clown nose and a rainbow wig. I think the original clown world pictures were just intended as ambiguous jokes. I went down the rabbit hole on this a bit, and it seems like the original clown world picture was simply posted with an open-ended question, "How does this make you feel?" That makes "clown world" kind of funny. Unfortunately, since the picture involved both Pepe the Frog, which has been used in various racist ways, and rainbow colors, which are emblematic of the LGBTQ pride movement, you can guess where "clown world" eventually went.

All of this represents a sort of mean-spirited cynicism. It's one thing to troll the overly earnest, cause them to clutch a few pearls for some laughs, and then move on with your day. (I don't condone that, either, but it is at least somewhat forgivable in a merry-prankster sort of way.) It's quite another to burn the Overton Window to cinders.

To put it simply, in order to buy into the alt-right's nihilism, one pretty much has to let go of everything: not merely all of your respect for other people, but even the notion that respect for other people itself is a virtue worth pursuing. Why else would you present yourself as maybe-a-nazi? It goes beyond promoting a set of ideas and into the realm of destroying the integrity of the notion of ideas. In other words, the project is not to win arguments and defeat ideas, but to eliminate the need for having an argument at all.

For a long time, I've been wondering why this sort of thing bothers me so much, and I think I finally have the answer. Ideas are, essentially, the conceptual equivalent of civilization.  Ideas are to humanity as personal relationships are to society. They are the foundation of advanced civilization, and if we're ready to give them all up - all of them, not just the bad ones, but all of them - then we are essentially giving up on civilization itself.

And you can easily recognize this in the alt-right. Their preference is for might-makes-right, and "alpha" behavior. They don't make heroes of Einstein or Feynman, they make heroes of Patton and Caesar. Warlords, generals, chieftains… This is the kind of civilization the alt-right is aiming at, and how could it be otherwise? The end of the road to nihilism is death, destruction and abnegation. You can't build a civilization on chiefs and strongmen. No one is strong enough to build a society, in fact. We need ideas for that.

Human society existed for eons as mere tribes of chiefs and strongmen; it wasn't until we started exercising temperance, restraint of force and passion and violence that we were able to climb out of mud hovels long enough to build a thatched roof; and from there, shingles, and sideboards, and so on. The brute could never have conceived of planting seeds and caring for them for months so that the tribe could be fed for a year. The brute couldn't conceive of it because the brute deals in force, not ideas. It required temperance to reach that realization, and temperance itself is an idea. Then, just as Mises describes in his writings on higher-versus-lower-order goods, each new development cleared the path for another, greater development; one technology building on the last and enabling the next. The wheel-and-axle is not just a physical technology, it's a template for how to build a machine. It is an idea.

Ideas are what build societies, and a society without ideas is a failed state. Therefore, nihilism is, in a way, the belief in a failed state. It's the belief that none of the things we believe in long enough to make the world a better place really matters. So nihilism can only ever produce an inferior world, and the longer we cling to it, the worse the world gets, all the way to the nadir.

And, frankly, that's why the alt-right will never win.

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