What I saw at the American Academy of Religion.
The Clear Pill, Part 1 of 5: The Four-Stroke Regime
One dose will erase your whole political mind.
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Editors’ note: Curtis Yarvin, the technologist best known for blogging under the name Mencius Moldbug, established a reputation this decade as one of the most influential and controversial figures on the online Right, far out of step with established mainstream conservatism. In recent years, as the political scene across the internet has fragmented with explosive growth, some factions have taken concepts Yarvin introduced—such as the “red pill” metaphor associated with The Matrix—and popularized them, sometimes in unhealthy and extremist ways. Now, in a new series of essays, Yarvin sets the record straight on his thinking, his critics, and his radical challenge to all political frameworks competing for dominance in American life. Partisans of every stripe would do well to prepare themselves to respond to this line of attack—one building strength and authority in tech circles. The question of whether American politics can deliver the good life today is one we continue to answer in the affirmative. But without the healthy jolt to the system Yarvin provokes, and the resulting tension and debate that is the essence of political democracy, all such affirmative answers, we strongly suspect, will be weakened, no matter how feverish they become.
The turn-of-the-century Italian School of political science—whose leading figures were Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto, and which James Burnham summarized in his best book, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1940)—taught that all states are ruled by elites who subdue their subjects with illusions.
Mosca called these illusions “political formulas.” A political formula is any narrative element which makes its host prefer actions that objectively stabilize the regime. The peasant in ancient Egypt might submit to his Pharaoh to avoid offending the latter’s father, the sun.
Political formulas are cousins of stage magic. Stage magic works by presenting true facts in a pattern that suggests a false story, and obscures a true story. To act politically is to act on a stage beyond our lives and senses. No one can perceive unmediated reality. We act within a story. We read that story as reality: present history.
Public opinion is an effect, not a cause. Told the same story, most people will have the same opinion. Story drives opinion; opinion drives action. There, I saved you a whole Walter Lippmann book. And as Voltaire said: those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
The Machiavellian hypothesis suggests that all modern regimes are Orwellian thought-control regimes. Is this true? Is our own government, like, the deep state, subjugating its subjects by trapping their minds in a fake reality dome, like in the Truman Show? Whoa, man.
Most people don’t think so. Most of the people who do think so are, I feel, ignorant, immature, deranged, or just plain wrong. Perhaps that’s the way you feel as well. All serious people know there are no real conspiracies — nobody’s perfect, but in just about everything the experts are just the experts.
Which is just the story you’d expect in any really first-class reality dome. No one is above stage magic, not even magicians themselves. Magic works by working harder than anyone’s instincts. It’s easy to teach the audience to instinctively reject certain kinds of ideas. And the experts and the serious people are the only people who have to be fooled.
Political stage magic is the psychological engineering of the population. Most engineering fields are beyond most people. Maybe you can understand the projector. Maybe anyone can walk out of the dome. Maybe I’m the magician myself! Be careful…
Take the Clear Pill
Here is one way to check out any idea you don’t want to believe: assume it’s true, then build a new reality around that axiom.
Once you fail, you get to say: I can’t see how this could be true.
I don’t want to believe the CIA did 9/11. I try to build a reality in which it did. I fail spectacularly. I go back to believing it was an al-Qaeda conspiracy. I don’t want to believe OJ is guilty. I assume he’s innocent, then look for the real killers. But I can’t even imagine them.
This integrity check is literally failsafe. It can’t brainwash you into random Internet nonsense. If you don’t see a hole in the dome, you stay in your present reality. Your failure is a contrapositive proof that either you were right, or your imagination was weak. Either way, time for another steak.
And your success—remains yours. No one needs you to believe anything else. This pill is neutral, tasteless unbelief. It is just a broad-spectrum treatment for common political formulas. It contains no beliefs of its own, true or false.
The clear pill does say you’re in a dome. It says nothing about the real world outside that dome, only that you know nothing about that world—just some facts. It does not even challenge any of those facts. It is made from pure philosophy and contains no jet fuel or steel beams.
Try it! It’ll be fun! All the cool kids are taking it!
The Objective of Neutrality
True history is not a set of facts. It is a true story made from facts.
Multiple stories of the present are presently available. The purpose of this pill is to present a standard none of them meets. To apply this standard is therefore to believe no story at all.
To be neutral is to accept that you don’t understand present history. Neutrality is a sort of political atheism. Absence of political conviction implies abstinence not only from political action, but ideally even from political desire—the thymos of the ancient Greeks.
Productive political action involves a group acting within a story. You are one person with zero stories. So you can’t “change the world.”
You used to think that was part of your job. As a human being. Whichever side you were on. It was a bad job and you were bad at it, so you quit. Now you don’t even need to want to try to “change the world.” (No need to accent this in applications or grant proposals—the Machiavellian is above all a realist.)
In a perfect state of neutrality, which none attain perfectly, you will be free of political energy and stress. You will not be of any use or any harm to any particular cause. You will feel neither political anger, nor political fear. You will neither cause trouble, nor get in trouble. This vacation from politics need not last the rest of your life. But it can.
Neutrality is just an intellectual divorce from whatever narrative you may follow now. Someone could still tell a story that met your new standards. You could still believe it enough to decide to live in it. Right now, it feels really good to be on your own.
And no: you most certainly do not vote, or demonstrate, or agitate, or do anything like that. To be neutral is to be as useless as possible to all sides of all conflicts. If that’s not anywhere you are willing to be, now is the time to bail!
The Hollow Buttress
Of course, we haven’t shown anything yet. Right away the going is hard. The Machiavellian hypothesis looks plain wrong. That’s as we’d expect, of course.
The normal reader knows two types of 20th-century regime: the bad kind (theirs, totalitarian) for which the Machiavellian reading is true, and the good kind (ours, democratic) for which it isn’t. The bad kind (theirs) fought the good kind (ours); the good kind (ours) fought back and won. Our democracy is the opposite of Orwellian: an open society, a free market in ideas.
History can happen like a children’s story. This version of the 20th century, ad usum delphini, is not dubious on its face. There is plenty of plain truth in it. My own kids accuse me of owning “way too many old books about Hitler.” This is truer than they know, and it’s left me quite confident that their regime was roughly as our best storytellers tell it.
Factually, few eras are better known to today’s historians than the Third Reich. Few current students of that regime are moved by its PR. Hard to say the same of the New Deal! History loves a loser; its archives lie naked, its mysteries unguarded.
Yet what does Hitler prove about us? Anything? Have the awful never fought the awful, and for awful reasons at that?
Stalin can take at least as much credit for fighting Hitler. Few authorities have suggested that he did so to save the Jews. That was not our purpose either; nor did we succeed in it. In retrospect, the case for self-defense isn’t even that strong. (Had there been an Axis military plan to conquer the world, a theory most Americans believed 75 years ago and few historians believe now, Japan moves into Siberia in 1941 and Eurasia is theirs.)
And… this is supposed to be the gold star on our resume? Even this use of the first person plural is Orwellian. No living person made these calls. Living institutions did. And for this very mixed outcome, we must revere their brands eternally? It simply doesn’t compute.
This “argumentum ad Hitlerum,” of such emotional weight in our shared story of the present, carries negligible logical weight. Any understanding of the vanished institutions of the loser tells us next to nothing about the living institutions of the winner. The imposing buttress is hollow. It seems largely decorative. Here indeed is our first small glimpse of authentic stagecraft.
Theory and Practice of Distributed Despotism
But the old reality remains compelling. There plainly are two regime types. We can’t just imagine them away.
Usually when we think of historical Nazism, Stalinism or Maoism, we think of wartime or warlike atrocities. When we look at Czechoslovakia in the ’60s, Germany in the ’30s, even China today, we see far fewer atrocities. Yet we still see the same structure of hierarchical control, with one person or a small team unilaterally directing the entire state.
This structure is clearly absent in the Western democracies.
Whatever our “regime” may be, it has nothing remotely like the Chinese Communist Party or Chairman Xi. It has no hierarchy. It has no center. It has neither leader, nor politburo, nor cadre. Maybe it’s not real democracy; it’s not a monarchy or a dictatorship.
A…distributed despotism? Is a decentralized Orwellian regime possible? If we can say no, we’re done. It seems impossible. Can we show that? We can’t, so let’s try to design one.
Maybe there are two kinds of Orwellian regimes—like two-stroke and four-stroke engines. Neither cycle is inherently better. A four-stroke leafblower is excessive; a two-stroke car, primitive.
Maybe a four-stroke regime is decentralized; a two-stroke regime, centralized. One is a reptile; the other, a mammal. One is a fish; the other, a whale. Both rule by shaping public opinion. Two-stroke regimes design their stories. Four-stroke regimes have no dictator, so they have no designer; their stories must evolve.
Generally, the two-stroke regime relies more on hard repression; the four-stroke regime relies more on soft illusion. But both, as we’ll see, can and do use both stabilization tools.
The One-Story State
The two-stroke regime is a one-story state. Everyone has to believe one narrative—one official history of the present.
This worked as well for Amenhotep as Chairman Xi. The two-stroke is an especially good fit for centralized monarchical regimes. It also fits the canonical cliche of Orwellian totalitarianism.
The one-story state is efficient, but unstable. Its chronic problem is that people hate being told what to believe. They often cause trouble even when the story is true!
Anyone who’s been to China has seen how efficiently classic totalitarianism can execute…in both senses. Not only does the PRC make all consumer goods, it’s also the top destination for transplant tourism. Maybe you don’t really want that Chinese two-stroke SUV, even if it does pop like a dirtbike.
Without oil in its gas, a two-stroke engine overheats. In the end it catches fire. Without active practice in hard repression, without serious enemies at home or abroad, the classic one-party state weakens. It rots from excessive success. In the end it is overthrown by little girls with flowers.
The ideal state might be a one-story state where the story was 100% true. But this is a dangerous level of idealism. (Nor would it repeal these axioms of regime stabilization.)
The Two-Story State
The four-stroke regime is a two-story state. When people hear one story, they tend to ask: is this true? When they hear two stories, they tend to ask: which one of these is true? Isn’t this a neat trick? Maybe our whole world is built on it. Any point on which both poles concur is shared story: “uncontroversial, bipartisan consensus.”
Shared story has root privilege. It has no natural enemies and is automatically true. Injecting ideas into it is nontrivial and hence lucrative; this profession is called “PR.”
There is no reason to assume that either pole of the spectrum of conflict, or the middle, or the shared story, is any closer to reality than the single pole of the one-story state.
Dividing the narrative has not answered the old question: is any of this true? Rather, it has… dodged it. Stagecraft!
This is even better than supposing that, since we fought Hitler and Hitler was bad, we must be good. These very basic fallacies, or psychological exploits, are deeply embedded in our political operating systems. Like bugs in code, they are invisible until you look straight at them. Then they are obvious.
The Civic and Political Cores
The key feature of the two-story state is much less reliance on hard repression. As in the four-stroke engine, the cost of the feature is a pile of parts and a drop in performance. The fundamental engineering problem of the two-story state is to contain the active, but innocuous, political conflict which distracts its subjects out of any real democratic power.
The modern two-story democracy contains two power cores: a civic core and a political core. The trick is: in theory, the political core is stronger than the civic core. In practice, the civic core is stronger than the political core.
A stable regime must maintain this power inversion. If stability is lost, the political core takes control. For an instant, the engine becomes a real democracy—then it turns into something else, or just catches fire and explodes. Think Germany in 1933.
Yet the “inversion” is, at bottom, a lie. The political core is presented as the ruler. The civic core is presented as the tool. The real flow of power is the opposite of the apparent flow.
Public opinion does not direct the civic core; the civic core guides public opinion. The one-story state needs continuous repression; the two-story state needs continuous stagecraft. Of course, the former can still lie, the latter still repress.
In current language, the positive label “democracy” signifies the civic core. We must all defend “democracy” from “politics,” a negative label. People really believe this newspeak. Since it is dangerous to reverse the power flow, they may even be right.
This inversion is the relationship between Parliament and Queen that Bagehot described 150 years ago. The voters are the Queen.
Though Empress of India, Queen Victoria was not “in the loop” of Indian government. Or British government. Nor was she ever irrelevant, and everyone respected her.
Such was the Hanoverian settlement, which set a “constitutional” monarchy to displace an actual one. Victoria is somewhere between Elizabeth I, a real Queen (if already too dependent on the Cecils) and Elizabeth II, a symbolic Queen.
Today’s voters do not know how to manage the state, any more than Elizabeth II knows how to boss Whitehall. They may want to land at the right airport. They have no idea how to fly the plane.
That’s okay: they have no idea how to take over the plane.
Nature has joined weakness and servility at the hip. The weak, she has decreed, may only appear to reign. They can neither take nor hold power; they have never ruled and never will. Wherever a child-monarch reigns, someone else rules.
The Civic Core
The civic core is the permanent civil service, plus what in other countries the press calls “civil society.”
“Civil society” means all legitimate institutions designed to serve or guide the state or public. This includes the press, academia, philanthropy, and so on. These mission-critical organs are strongest, safest, and most democratic when kept outside even the potential reach of political accountability.
While the civil service proper has many protections, it remains in theory hierarchically subordinate to the President. This may be fake. It can’t be fake enough for an institution as critical to our democracy as the press. It wouldn’t seem right, except in wartime, to have a Department of Information. (The wartime “truth ministries” were OWI in WWII, CPI in WWI.)
It’s interesting to compare Western civil society to an Eastern ruling party. Both are organs outside the civil service proper. The latter is truly centralized; the former, decentralized.
Civil society has no single point of failure. That’s cool. Yet it is impossible not to notice three disturbing facts about it. We’ll have to leave these phenomena as mysteries for now.
One: it has no arbitrary center, but its reputation system seems arbitrary, or at least static. The prestige of prestigious universities, newspapers, etc., does not seem to change. These institutions must be either impeccable, or unaccountable.
Two: some mysterious force seems to ideologically coordinate this system. All these prestigious institutions, though organizationally quite separate, seem to magically agree with each other. When they change their minds, all change together, in the same direction. We cannot say that Harvard is on one side of Yale; we can say the Harvard of 2019 is on one side of the Harvard of 1989. This force is not centralized, but works like a center. It could just be a totally sick level of collective wisdom. But is it?
Three: one tendency of this mysterious force is reinforcement of effective political formulas. Somehow civil society prefers to think thoughts that make civil society stronger. It is still a marketplace of ideas; it also prefers to think thoughts that are true. These preferences are not always aligned.
If we can explain all these phenomena, we can explain how a decentralized civil society, effectively protected from democracy, can, does, and indeed must become a distributed Orwellian despotism. But we’ll postpone these loose ends till the final essay.
The Power Valve
How does the civic core protect itself from the political core, which nominally dominates it? There is always a constitutional link between the two cores. This link must follow the rules of both sides. It must be both unaccountable, and democratic. It is Congress.
The anatomy of the link is key; it’s the valve that reverses the constitutional flow of power. Congress operates as a “defeat device” against real democracy, that is, giving any actual power to the voters.
In theory, the civil service is part of the executive branch and reports to the President. In practice, as Woodrow Wilson himself pointed out in 1885, “the actual form of our present government is simply a scheme of congressional supremacy.” The strong Presidents of the 20th century—Wilson, FDR, LBJ—found ways to intimidate Congress, but only in alliance with a young and rising civic core.
The civil service (the actual government) is in the legislative branch. It reports to Congress. That is: it literally reports to Congress. Who testifies before the White House—or has their real budget set there?
The White House does get to fill a few thousand offices across DC. All agencies work just fine without any appointees, though none of them will admit it.
In office, these people can cause real problems—which in turn causes PR problems for their problematic president. Appointees certainly cannot make an agency do anything it doesn’t want to do. For the Hill, however, it will stand on its head and suck its toes.
It’s tough to be “in charge” when you’re temporary and can’t fire, or even reorganize, the permanent staff who “work for” you. This charade is a key safeguard of the unwritten constitution, since the Presidency remains a genuinely democratic organ. At least, most normal people actually care about the Presidential election.
Not so for Congress, which has long been temporary in theory but permanent in practice. Again: the link between the unaccountable civic core and the democratic political core must be both unaccountable and democratic. Congress fits this profile perfectly.
The House has not dipped below an 80% incumbency rate since 1938, the Senate below 60% since 1980; the usual figures are 90+ and 80+; seniority and other rules easily clog this institutional gap.
Yet in theory the voters could trivially replace the House and easily the Senate—rules and all. They do not; so in theory, they must be satisfied. Yet Congress’s normal popularity rating is under 20%. Once this transmutation is accomplished, anything is possible.
Congress is a nexus of power, not a center of power. It does not wield power; it delegates power. Legislators are not actually statesmen. They do not debate, like Cato and Cicero, their visions of the good. They do sometimes read some staffer’s speech for the camera. Their real job is fundraising and PR.
The staff does all the real work, but not even the staff writes actual bills. Congress has two sources of legislative input: activists and lobbyists. The activists come for power; the lobbyists, money.
Activists are Democrats; lobbyists are whores. Either is more than happy to write any “language” that any staffer needs.
Congress manages Washington by coordinating activist and corporate power with the agencies themselves, following the inspiration of the press, the judgment of the academy, and the generosity of philanthropy. This real constitution is written nowhere.
DC does not even really need an executive branch. The inner empire (“domestic policy”) would barely notice if the White House disappeared, except that a source of chaos had vanished. The outer empire (“national security”) must respond centrally to unpredictable external actors. It does need an oracle: a source of ultimate decisions.
But the NSC could go on Amazon and order a Magic 8-Ball: “YES,” “NO,” “ANSWER UNCLEAR—ASK AGAIN LATER.” This palantír of phronesis bolted to the Resolute desk, the processes of “global leadership” could continue unperturbed.
What a magic trick! This democratic defeat device is not ugly. It is natural and beautiful. It evolved; no one invented it; they invented something else; it failed, it died, it became this. The snail’s old clothes are the crab’s new home.
Democracy doesn’t work, so of course it needs to be defeated, the story of power runs; and those who can’t handle the truth do not, for their own sakes, deserve it.
Yet think of all the voices, pitched high to inform the American people of urgent problems demanding their immediate attention, never once mentioning that they care about the wrong election.
The Political Core
The power valve is cool! But like any valve, it has a limit. It can block the direct impact of public opinion on the civic core, but only when public opinion itself is reasonably well-controlled. If the whole population turns against it, it will just rupture. Every regime needs to manage public opinion. But who is this public? Let’s take a quick tour of the political core.
As Orwell wrote, all societies have three human layers. We may call ours gentry, commoners, and clients. The gentry are urbanites, cultivated and ambitious; the commoners are suburbanites, educated and independent; the clients are Marx’s proletariat and lumpenproletariat, uneducated and/or dependent.
Controlling Clients and Commoners
The Romans were right about “divide and conquer.” The natural conflict pits commoners against gentry plus clients. These two sides hold incompatible theories of government. Commoners see it as a service association, like a nation-sized HOA, for the good of its shared owners. Gentry see it as a spiritual phenomenon, a force for good and a source of purpose. Clients are what Indian political scientists call a “votebank”; they always follow the gentry. Since the civic core is staffed by the gentry, this alliance becomes its defensive front within the political core. Or the civic alliance can even play offense—all the better.
When the alliance loses, the actual processes of government become exposed to political power. So long as the pressures are low and transient, the valve can take it. Congress and the civil service are pretty tough.
The alliance must tune its song for the demographic ratio. In a First World ratio, commoners remain a majority. In a Third World ratio, commoners are safely outnumbered.
In the minority, the civic alliance is existentially dependent on taming these potential Hitler voters with Jedi mind tricks. In the majority, the alliance just has to stay united. The suburbs can even vote for Hitler if they like! In fact, that might be funny.
But the alliance still needs political formulas to keep the suburbs believing in the elections. As the Ceaușescus could tell you, democracy isn’t just about elections. This is especially scary if the commoners are well-armed and martial. Fortunately, they are only the former.
Controlling the Gentry
Keeping the gentry united is more important than it looks. Successful peasant revolts are rare; elite revolts, common. For commoners and clients, politics is cultural or tribal. The gentry are genuinely governed by philosophy.
Here is the genius of the two-story system. Each story is a whole philosophy, and the choice is not boolean. The two stories become poles of an ellipse, within which all may think freely: the Overton bubble.
Every point in this ellipse is different. A mind at any level of talent and cultivation can search forever for truth inside the bubble, never thinking of the original question: is any of this true? This harmless marketplace of ideas, completely convincing yet completely contained, is just a beautiful regime-security device. Certainly the one-story state has nothing like it—punctual trains and all. Useless to complain about how efficient you are when you’re getting overthrown.
Most critics of the status quo think there used to be free speech in America, but in the last few years there has been a crackdown. If we ever had a level playing field for free speech, no one living ever played on it. What’s new is not the bounds but the need to enforce them. The whole point of the two-story state is that it should need little or no repression. But…
The Three-Story State
No empire is forever. Stability itself is destabilizing. The more stable the elite, the greater its freedom to screw up. No elite in history has permanently resisted this temptation.
The consequence of sustained elite incapacity is that all narratives within the Overton bubble become unconvincing. The illusions stop working. Stories outside the bubble arise.
These stories can be anything. The space outside the bubble is much larger than the space inside it. The most dangerous outside stories (a) are completely true, (b) aim at rogue gentry, and (c) exalt commoners and/or disparage clients. Any such narrative might be the political formula of the next regime. This actually should make you think of Hitler.
Don’t panic! All is nowhere near lost. Hard repression remains available. It does damage the illusion of free thought. It also works damn well. Illusions can be patched, even broken. Most Germans today are happy with freedom minus badthink.
More subtly and beautifully, a “third” story is not dangerous if it cannot possibly succeed. It can even be useful—as a sort of vaccine against actually dangerous ideas. The ideal third story is just plain bad. This also makes repression easier.
And since existing outside the bubble does not imply independence from the bubble, the third story can be made bad. Once again, there is no conspiracy—we are just seeing memetic evolution.
The long-term risk of the three-story regime is that the two mainstream stories merge into one; the ellipse becomes a circle; the four-stroke engine becomes a two-stroke. It was not made to run as a two-stroke. But there’s a first time for everything.
Now That You’re Feeling the Medication
We have left a mystery or two for later. But if you were wondering how Orwellian distortions of thought, language, and history could exist in a modern constitutional democracy, maybe now you know.
But the clear pill is not complete; just completely framed. We have constructed a hypothetical Orwellian regime shaped a lot like ours. We have no evidence at all that it is like ours.
One can’t question a story by demeaning its origins. Imagine questioning Islam by mocking its prophet. What C.S. Lewis called “Bulverism” is neither logically nor practically effective. The Machiavellian frame just explains the origins of the question.
Four essays follow in this series. The next three are written to true believers in each of the three major stories: progressivism, constitutionalism, fascism. These essays are not indictments; they are interventions. They speak not about the philosophies, but to them, in language the faithful should understand.
The essays do not suggest that any tradition is good or evil.
Since the narratives share no common ethical framework (Hume’s “ought”), they can only be analyzed objectively (Hume’s “is”).
Each intervention seeks to establish two properties. First: that each philosophy is objectively ineffective or counterproductive as the recipe for statesmanship it purports to be, since the outcomes of the actions it promotes do not tend to match their explicit purposes. Second: that each philosophy is objectively effective as a political formula for the present regime.
It’s hard to imagine anyone accepting both these propositions, yet remaining a true believer. By packing a single pill with vaccinations against all three major strains of political formula, we have a chance of erasing anyone’s political mind. The last essay is about what to do with your new blank slate.