From the outside, America’s alt right is a nebulous movement based on racism, nationalism, and white supremacy. In contrast, the tech elites in Silicon Valley look like a relatively worldly bunch, despite the calls from some quarters of the valley to break away from the plebeian masses of the US.
Despite their differences, strands of the two groups share strong links to “Dark Enlightenment,” an obscure neo-fascist philosophy started by a British academic in the 1990s.
The birth of a manifesto
The primary figure behind Dark Enlightenment is Nick Land, who was a philosophy professor at Warwick University until he quit academia in 1998. His work is a form of “accelerationism” (broadly speaking, a belief that the tools of capitalism and technology should be sped up and dramatically enhanced) and he was, for a time, something of a cult figure for his work on internet and cyber culture.
While at Warwick, Land was part of “Cybernetic Culture Research Unit,” which explored drugs, raves, and science fiction, and was affiliated with such notable figures as the philosopher Sadie Plant and the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. Land has never been a typical academic, and that shows in his writing. His Dark Enlightenment manifesto, published online in 2012, is florid, contradictory, and opaque.
Land’s writings on in his blog and twitter can read like an alt-right rant, and comment sections on the far-right outlet Breitbart are apt to mention his work. Academic writers and former students of Land’s have expressed ideas that are vaguely influenced by Dark Enlightenment. Others are more outspoken: One philosopher with clearly Landian ideas, Jason Reza Jorjani, who lectures at New Jersey Institute of Technology, is co-founder of altright.com and spoke at a white nationalist meeting led by Richard Spencer.
What are the tenets of Dark Enlightenment theory? There are a few consistent themes, circling around technology, warfare, feudalism, corporate power, and racism. “It’s an acceleration of capitalism to a fascist point,” says Benjamin Noys, a critical theory professor at the University of Chichester and author of Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism.
Those who have studied Dark Enlightenment describe an almost cult-like vision of a dystopian future. “It is a worship of corporate power to the extent that corporate power becomes the only power in the world,” says David Golumbia, a new media professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It becomes militarized, and states break down. For some reason that’s difficult to understand, they seem to think these highly weaponized feudal enclaves would be more free than the society we currently have.”
Land believes that advances in computing will enable dominant humans to merge with machines and become cybernetic super beings. He advocates for racial separation under the belief that “elites” will enhance their IQs by associating only with each other.
Capitalism has not yet been fully unleashed, he argues, and corporate power should become the organizing force in society. Land is vehemently against democracy, believing it restricts accountability and freedom. The world should do away with political power, according to Dark Enlightenment, and instead, society should break into tiny states, each effectively governed by a CEO.
Fans in high places
Earlier this year, Politico reported that White House strategist Steve Bannon is a fan of Dark Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the major proponent of the movement other than Land is software engineer Curtis Yarvin, who blogs as “Mencius Moldbug.”
And while most Silicon Valley techies are unaware of and uninterested in Dark Enlightenment, there are notable figures and ideas that seem to share intellectual heritage and connections with the movement.
Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is a major backer of Yarvin’s start-ups and, as The Baffler reports, in 2012, Thiel gave a lecture at Stanford with distinct Dark Enlightenment themes. “A startup is basically structured as a monarchy,” he said at the time. “We don’t call it that, of course. That would seem weirdly outdated, and anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable.”
Growing Silicon Valley interest in creating a small, separate state is straight out of Land’s writing. Meanwhile there are growing numbers of techies who identify with Yarvin and “neoreactionary” ideas.
And, of course, both Silicon Valley and Dark Enlightenment are products of and devotees to internet culture. Noys notes that certain values in Silicon Valley are vaguely sympathetic to Land’s thinking. “There’s this entrepreneurial belief that you’re the master of the universe,” he says. “They believe they’re the exception that proves the rule, that anyone can be successful.”
Land says that, though he expects Dark Enlightenment micro-states to first form on islands, Silicon Valley is “bound to be involved in the process” as these societies form.
The alt right and Silicon Valley are not the only two cliques with ties to Dark Enlightenment thinking. Avant-garde art artists have also dabbled in Dark Enlightenment. A London gallery, LD50, was shut down amid protests after Land was invited to talk at the gallery, providing a platform for Dark Enlightenment ideas.
“You could argue—though I wouldn’t—that the alt right and Dark Enlightenment are artistic works,” says Noys. “Twenty-first century art has been interested in transgression and shock, so there’s an interest in how these people have used their memes to achieve their goals.”
The philosophical masters of a popular movement
US president Donald Trump, Land says, is a “symptom of crisis” and sign that the West is broken. But Land views White House chief strategist Steve Bannon as, “an unusually interesting politician.”
Dark Enlightenment proponents see themselves as “the philosophical masters” of the alt-right movement, says Noys. “Land sees himself as above all that, as a Philosopher King of a movement that’s too populist and grubby for this liking,” says Noys. “He’s part of this continuum, that’s pretty clear. But he’s fighting to distinguish himself from the more populist end of things.”
Golumbia agrees that “He probably thinks he’s smarter than all of them [the alt right], or they haven’t gone far enough. But they are definitely fellow travellers.”
Land himself is dismissive of the alt right, which he calls “a predictable (and predicted) development of mass democracy, as it enters its collapse-phase” in an email to Quartz. Still, he says, “Insofar as it marks the end of global governance on the basis of evangelical egalitarian-universalism, it makes space for more realistic political conversations, which have notably begun to happen.”
Land also rejects the idea that Dark Enlightenment has fascist elements, writing that “Fascism is a mass anti-capitalist movement, when the word isn’t (more usually) simply a childish insult.” As for racial divides, he says the science is “an empirical question” but “that human population groups are significantly distinct, however, is a matter so self-evident to ordinary people that it makes for a natural default.”
Land’s theories sound easily dismissible, and Nick Land is still largely unknown, but his neo-fascist ideas are finding niches where they flourish.. “I think there’s this emergent fringe,” says Noys.
Golumbia notes that Land’s work attracted plenty of impressionable graduate students decades ago. It undoubtedly helps that offensive ideas are masked with references to respected writers and philosophers: Land has his own idiosyncratic reading of the German philosopher Nietzsche, for example, and the French 2oth century thinkers Deleuze, Guattari, and Bataille. And as far as accelerationism goes, Noys traces its intellectual heritage to the Italian futurists (who had their own ties with fascism).
Despite their long lineage, the ideas fall apart under scrutiny. “To those of us who were more skeptical, it looked like it had the seeds of a disturbing belief in a superman: This kind of digital hybrid cyber-being who was a lot better than the ordinary weak people,” says Golumbia. “His writing is more and more obsessed with race, Islam, echoing the things that people like Nigel Farage say. He sounds like a visionary but really he’s nothing but these reactionary clichés about how minority people are to blame for all of our problems.”
Land, who has long perceived himself as a visionary, firmly believes that society and government as we know it will break down and his vision for the future will come to pass. “The crack-up is obvious to everyone,” Land writes. “(That’s why you’re doing this story.)”