Tyler Cowen is not outwardly neoreactionary. His sympathy to neoreaction has been strictly limited the few times he has written about it; in fact, he prefers to ignore it in favor of a broader “neo-reaction” of his own definition. It is a puzzle, then, how he has written such a precise, inspiring manifesto for it in his recently published book, The Complacent Class.
On a first read, the book may not seem to offer so much. It initially reads like a series of Vox articles about the lazy foibles of several particular sorts of white American that it’s currently fashionable to hector. There are plenty of questionably designed statistics and politically correct thinkpiece citations scattered throughout like so much gauche op-ed bling. However, the end grows more and more daring until we hit a triplet of stunning lines in the final six pages, the sole bolded sentences in the book of 200 pages:
When it comes to ordinary, everyday American life, how quickly will matters turn chaotic or disorderly again, and what forms will the implosion take? (p. 199)
The biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress. (p. 200)
All of this can happen even if you think the majority response will be a greater and greater love of peace. (p. 202)
Taking a cue from those statements, consider that the book itself might be a cycle. Read forwards, it is a series of slightly overcooked thinkpieces that ends on a surprisingly bold note. Read backwards, one finds it hides a thrilling call to arms.
This is a contrarian reading; one I make no claim should actually be attributed to Cowen himself. Nonetheless, the coherences pile up too neatly to simply be ignored once seen.
We begin with Chapter 1: The Return of Chaos. Though our lives have become unprecedentedly stable, continued Progress is not assured. Cyclical history is becoming more predictive. We are not meeting our expectations and our systems are fragile. Civilizations rise and fall. Ours appears to be falling by several measures. And Dark Enlightenment is coming whether you wish it or not:
There is the distinct possiblity that, in the next twenty years, we are going to find out far more about how the world really works than we ever wanted to know. As the mentality of the complacent class loses its grip, the subsequent changes in attitude will be part of an unavoidable and perhaps ultimately beneficial process of social, economic, and legal transformation. But many Americans will wish, ever so desperately, to have that complacency back. (p. 204)
Domestic order is unraveling, says Cowen, looking at spreading unrest on campuses like Mizzou and on the streets like in Ferguson, unstable crime rates (especially given how partially cybercrime is reported), and electoral upsets such as Brexit and Trump’s election on a wave of populist resentment. “Let’s not be shocked if the next set of significant innovations among the American professions comes… in the profession of crime,” he writes (p. 189), predicting that “the next crime wave is going to break the internet, or at least significant parts of it” (p. 187). Global order, too, appears fragile to him. Our plans for the Middle East are a shambles, the reset with Russia went sour, and Hillary’s pivot to Asia flopped.
The chapter-in-reverse concludes:
And as the years pass, it seems increasingly obvious that the social and economic stagnation of our times is more than just a temporary blip; instead, that stagnation reflects deeply rooted structural forces that will not be easy to undo by mere marginal reforms. (p. 177)
A call for an alternative to mere marginal reform… a call for revolution? For Restoration? For now this is only foreshadowing, but the next chapter will clear the ambiguity.
Chapter 2: Political Stagnation and the Dwindling of True Democracy indicts the democratic spirit as the source of the coming chaos. First, we are reminded that our infatuation with democracy is rather parochial:
One simple way to get a good read on “democracy in America,” circa 2017, is to ask what America’s main rival on the global stage, China, thinks of American government. I have found that many Chinese admire and indeed envy America greatly, pointing to its much higher standard of living, freedom of speech, and relatively clean environment, among other positive features. Still, even those Chinese who admire America find it hard to praise our government. (p. 176)
The chapter’s thesis is only partly that democratic government itself is dwindling. Even more, its thesis is that True Democracy dwindles man. Rather than paraphrases of Cowen’s words that let you wonder how far I’ve interpreted them, take this series of verbatim excerpts:
Through a deep study of the classics and the long arc of human historical development, Tocqueville understood that current historical trends were by no means guaranteed to be permanent, and American restlessness might contain the seeds of its own demise.
For Tocqueville, the philosophy of “pantheism” helps drive this fall from grace. Tocqueville uses the word pantheism in a special way, so don’t associate it with the theological doctrine that God is represented by the material universe as a whole. For Tocqueville, pantheism is as much a social construct as a religious perspective. It promotes the merging of man and nature and thereby attempts to remove the transcendent from human discourse. The transcendent is no longer something man ought to strive for, and that surrender is for Tocqueville the essence of pantheistic philosophy. The creator is no longer distant from man, giving people something to look up to, and so there is a lost source of inspiration and therefore a death of enthusiasm. There is instead a search for unity, resulting in a lazy pride and contentment and a forgetting of the striving and heroism that can make men great.
To be sure, pantheism no longer sounds like the right word for what Tocqueville was describing. Few Americans subscribe to explicit pantheism.
Still, the identification of pantheism with a kind of social stasis nonetheless captures a significant insight. Think of Tocqueville’s invocation of pantheism, and the disappearance of the transcendent, as a general stand-in for the phenomenon of self-contained contentment and complacency. (p. 169-168)
This could be at home on an Orthosphere blog. And concluding the chapter:
Anti-establishment insurgent campaigns were the talk of the 2016 presidential campaign, and both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were legitimate anti-establishment candidates. But a peek beneath the surface reveals that much of the fear and anger that drove their campaigns was based not on a hope for change in Washington but on a hope for a return to the past. (p. 159)
No, not mere marginal reform in Washington, not more democracy, and not revolution—the people’s hearts cry out for Restoration!
We may want it, but given that democratic theology has apparently been rendering us into drudges without a sense of the transcendent, we should take a hard look at ourselves as we begin to consider the possibilities for an American Restoration. What is our potential today? How are we living today? The reversed Chapter 3: How a Dynamic Society Looks and Feels begins by describing how in today’s America, people feel they must hide their wealth and privilege (p. 157-152). We feel it is better to countersignal power than to signal it. We feel signaling will out us as strivers—and vulnerable to humiliation or extortion.
However, this only applies to Americans, we learn. Immigrants to the U.S. have a freer and more hopeful mindset than natives, evidenced by their greater social mobility. Foreigners in more ethnically homogeneous, authoritarian countries such as China are freer to enjoy their wealth and their power.
Since the 1960s, the cultures that have produced the most upward economic mobility include Japan, South Korea, and China, due to their supercharged rates of economic growth. It is no accident that these are the same cultures obsessed with business cards, stereotypical blue suits, submission to hierarchical authority, and bringing the perfect gift. (p. 157)
Cowen shows us that if we had the courage of immigrants and foreigners to ignore contemporary mores and treat our strengths as something to take pride in rather than something to hide, we might restore our culture to a dynamic greatness. Such honest pride in ourselves and our abilities was ours only a half-century ago, before the 60s, he implies. It is not so long gone.
However, a proper neoreactionary, he doesn’t pretend we can simply wish ourselves there. Americans’ current complacency is not pure timidity. The transcendent is not something we’ve simply lost. It was crushed, stolen, and turned against us.
Bombings, riots, theft, and vandalism that terrorist resentment politics unleashed in the 60s provoked the change to our current stifling, complacent safety. “Overall,” reminds Cowen, “whether it was on campus or not, the 1968 to 1975 period saw more instances of antigovernment violence than any time since the American Civil War” (p. 129).
Our fears are practical, grounded, and real. Our safety comes at the cost of ambitious bureaucratic, penal, and custodial innovations.
The story of these innovations, the subject of Chapter 4, serves as both a caution and a paradoxical source of hope. The neoreactionary reading this section of the manifesto should be impressed by the scale of the problem he is facing, but also heartened that American society has been addressing its problems, surreptitiously, even when it has not always had the political courage to admit just what it was doing.
The chapter contains a long list of attempted protests that ended up rather tame, for all the attention they received in the press from day to day. On Occupy Wall Street:
the on-the ground reality is that Brookfield Properties and the City of New York ended up getting their way. Eventually the weather became colder, and Occupy Wall Street is now a kind of misty nostalgic footnote to history. (p. 136)
Why has this happened? It’s the powers behind the protests, of course.
It’s not just the law that has changed; the incentives of the organizers are now fundamentally different. When a major public event is orchestrated, such as the Million Man March of 1995, it tends to be backed by a lot of organization and capital investment. That in turn requires a lot of mainstream support. Unlike the days of the Black Panthers, today’s social protest can no longer be a shoestring operation based on cheap labor, a lot of walking, and some guns. For today’s events, you need planners, operatives, and “nudgers”—on the side of the marchers—to ensure that the images on television are positive. (p. 140)
In other words, now that the protests are no longer tendrils of international Soviet subversion with a goal of revolution, but agents of foundations with more insidiously progressive political goals, the protests are no longer so violent or so spontaneous. The 1970s were the end of an era of proxy war that our American communists won.
Recent innovations in bureacratic control, as oppressive as they have become to some of us over the last two decades, are mechanisms to keep our sovereigns at least somewhat able to maintain property rights and similar freedoms despite our democracy. They keep the American cold civil war on ice. They keep the transcendent alive, if only in the dark.
Chapter 5, The Well-Ordered Match, continues this theme, eventually declaring the work of the last chapter “the grand project of our time” (p. 98). “Matching,” one of Cowen’s key terms in this book, is the process of using innovation to ensure personal safety, satisfaction, and lifestyle continuity. Instead of trying to overcome past highs via innovation, matchers use innovation to maintain current satisfaction levels with lower risk, especially lower risk via decreased dependencies on other individuals or communities. In the words of one of my earlier articles here, they are Exiting in place, or in the words of another, they focus on building better radiation shields against an atomized culture rather than finding new ways to use actual atoms.
Cowen is suggesting that most contemporary innovation is centered on achieving escape from envious levellers and mediocre universal culture. Who cares if you can make money or invent new technologies if you won’t enjoy the benefits? What are the benefits of striving in a society of countersignalers with no shared sense of the transcendent? When any random idiot’s Voice can be so loud as in today’s society, the only hope is to find Exits.
However, the book is not over. Cowen has more in store for us. Matching is only a stage or a tactic to acquire the independence to do greater things. This halfway point of the book is where the night seems darkest. Dawn emerges in the next chapter.
It is no longer time just to seek and preserve safety, directs Cowen. The time has come to create. Chapter 6, Why Americans Stopped Creating, sketches the primary barriers to constructive innovations as opposed to protective innovations. In doing so, it also indicates that the tide is set to turn.
The chapter begins by dismissing internet technology as a source of economic productivity. Next, despite its relative failure, Cowen identifies it as the closest thing to a successful overt, constructive grand project that the US has had in two and a half decades. The other candidates would be peace in the Middle East and the Affordable Care Act (p. 93). He echoes Thiel that the era of grand projects is over. The chapter is well-summarized by its section headings: “Living Standards Have Been Stagnating,” “Measures of Productivity Indicate Pessimism,” “Fewer Americans Involved in Innovation,” “Monopoly Power on the Rise.”
In other words, your competition is made up of paper tigers. Unless they are Amazon, Google, Apple, or some other of a small number of companies that are actually improving and growing, their success is the success of an incumbent bully that has lost its ability to improve the lives of its workers, the efficiency with which they work, and even the know-how to reinvent the same products and processes again if they were lost. These companies are not huge out of strength, but out of weakness:
Corporate cash holdings have shown a steady trend upward for decades, as companies are holding more funds in safe securities rather than investing them in new opportunities.
However, one investment that this quite popular is dealmaking, and 2015 was a record year in this regard. When it comes to mergers and acquisitions, times have never been better.
So the cash piles of corporations are going somewhere, just not always into creating new ideas. Companies would rather buy up other, already established companies than try to succeed with new ideas or their own new product lines. (p. 81-80)
Businesses just aren’t investing as much as they used to. Net capital investment, as a share of gross domestic product, has been declining ever since the 1980s. An alternative measure of the value of capital services, a ten-year moving average which avoids the “noise” in the data for any single year, has been declining since the start of the millenium. (p. 80)
In other words, these enormous monopolies are treading water internally and searching far and wide for outsiders to provide the scarce innovation they judge themselves to be incapable of. It’s a fine time to be an innovative outsider, provided you can avoid stepping on the bullies’ turf while establishing your own.
And proceeding naturally to the topic of acquiring and protecting turf, Chapter 7: The Return of Segregation tells the story of how we are already defending and even reconquering some communities thought lost to the right. Don’t lose hope listening to progressive talking points about their own successes, don’t even listen to Moldbug’s “Cthulhu swims left”: segregation is up, rebellious subcultures are tamer, and America is not lost. We begin on this note:
It is often a puzzle for foreigners why the United States has such a dismal performance when it comes to murder, guns, and mental illness, all features of American life that, when compared to most of the other wealthy countries, are so awful that they do not require further documentation. You might wonder how those bad results square with America’s relatively strong performances on most capital indices, such as trust, cooperation, and charitable philanthropy; on philanthropy, we even rate as the global number one. The truth is that those positive and negative facets are two sides of the same coin: Cooperation is very often furthered by segregating those who do not fit in. That creates some superclusters of cooperation among the quality cooperators and a fair amount of chaos and dysfunctionality elsewhere. (p. 70)
—Steve Sailer could hardly have said it better himself. The remainder of the chapter describes how these superclusters successfully stay that way.
The reversed Cowen commends pricing the unwanted out of good neighborhoods, raising the cost of employing undesirables by giving them rights to sue for almost anything, and adopting hipster cultures that keep competitors out by refusing them to offer the foods they like, the entertainments they prefer, or any other comforts, like the freedom to catcall beautiful women, that they would otherwise take for granted. He does not only focus on racial segregation in the text; the same points become even stronger when applied to class and culture.
These are the mechanisms that successful cooperative superclusters use to preserve themselves today, and they are not the exclusive preserve of the left. Half our battle, therefore, is just to convince modern elites that it’s OK to do what they’re already doing, defending their own small incipient patchworks from outside invasion, and thus free them to do it more purposefully and elegantly. And in the meantime, doing it consciously, we’ll also do it better.
Next, Chapter 8 tells us that the time is ripe to go beyond consolidating these superclusters and also create new ones. Geographic mobility is sharply down in America, and why? There is nowhere affordable for potentially mobile people to move to, or, dually, no established communities want to risk welcoming mobile troublemakers.
Cowen paints a convincing picture of how government malinvestment into mobility in the 50s and 60s lead to widespread civil strife in the 60s and 70s, leading many formerly productive and attractive cities and neighborhoods to become stagnant and unattractive. The places that remained attractive learned to close themselves to influx of population lest they go the same way as Detroit, New York, or Chicago’s South Side, so that now rents have grown enormous and mobility is much lower. Even when these cities recover, as New York and Chicago have at least in part, they do so via pricing undesirables out as described in the previous chapter, keeping mobility low for those who would benefit most from it.
In other words, the limit to mobility today is that communities cannot vet potential newcomers before they make plans to invite them in. Looking at New York’s thriving co-ops and the business success of President Trump, Cowen could be making a recommendation here: creating exclusive community is among the most compelling political and business opportunities of our time.
In fact Cowen gives an explicit estimate for the economic loss due to lack of such services over the past 12 years alone: 1.7 trillion dollars of GDP (p. 44). Enough to fit 1.7 thousand unicorn startup valuations per year.
This is the spoils awaiting the founders of a national organization capable of helping its members make new homes in new places while also guaranteeing they will be such good tenants and neighbors that current residents would welcome new building to accomodate them. Inspiring stuff for a national organization whose logo is the Roman goddess of the hearth.
The conclusion, reversed Chapter 9, summarizes and reiterates the material of the previous eight chapters. “We have created the complacent class. We own the concept and indeed we are the concept. It is in fact our greatest but also our most dangerous innovation. Someday we make break it, too,” it begins, a warning to all who have been counting on conservative complacency and a battle cry to the resigned who can now rise up.
The further playing out of this Great Reset will, as I explain[ed] in more detail in the [first] chapter of this book, involve a major fiscal and budgetary crisis; the inability of our government to adjust to the next global emergency that comes along; impossibly expensive apartment rentals in the most attractive cities; the legacy of inadequate mobility and residential segregation; a rebellion of many less-skilled men; a resurgence of crime; and a decline in economic dynamism, among other social and economic problems. Eventually stasis will prove insufficient and big changes will have to come, whether we like it or not. (p. 22)
The “less-skilled men,” here, especially means more “brutish,” (p. 20) less “socially skilled” men, i.e., the men who lack the superior social skills of women that have been so crucial to America’s massive productivity gains in education, healthcare, and administration since the 1970s. Manifestos have to be spared such bitter jokes; manifesto writers rarely take up the profession out of an excess of good will.
But with that my conceit is reaching its end. I find myself testing a model of a neoreactionary Tyler Cowen who must still “harbor some resentment towards women” after hearing about the Dark Enlightenment through mens’ rights activism.
Still, examine just how much has fallen into place so far: chaos is returning to American life due to neglect of essential virtue. The root cause is democratic politics, which has led state power to develop unprecedentedly invasive bureacratic control mechanisms. Most innovation today is focused on Exit from the society of the masses, whether the innovators like to admit it or not; corporate exploitation of the masses has matured and now stagnates. Segregation is the key to functional community and can still be achieved clandestinely. The task for an innovator of the next twenty years is to construct a quasi-governmental organization capable of maintaining segregated, high-trust, eucivic networks and use it to escape democratic pathology for good in a Great Reset.
Cowen is probably not hiding any secret sympathy for our projects, though in today’s paranoid intellectual environment, the Left does again and again stretch perfectly anodyne books like Cowen’s into absurd boogeymen like the ‘hidden manifesto’ sketched above. And perhaps it’s fair, since were I writing under a true name, I might write much the same way Cowen has here.
The puzzle of how he could inadvertently provide me the material to pull such a manifesto from his book is solved easily: any observant intellectual today can see the same patterns that ground the neoreactionary project and also cannot say the same things openly about those patterns.
We are born of these intellectuals ourselves. We come from the same social classes, we attended the same institutions for education, and we have many of the same shared cultural touchstones. We’re not so far away; we fit in well to progressive society. Hence the crippling progressive paranoia currently cutting free speech out of our culture: make truth your enemy and you never sleep soundly again.
Cowen is a sharp competitor, one of very few I believe might truly convince me to take another political path than neoreaction. If he reads this piece, I’d hope he takes it as the well-intentioned contrarianism that it is. He is honest as one can be in his milieu, encyclopedically informed, consistently interesting, and he’s admitting in this book that certain aspects of neoreactionary worldviews are deeper, truer, and more accessible than the complacent classes would like to allow. To my mind that makes him a fellow competitor rather than an existential opponent. He does not appear sympathetic to all of our values, but then who are we to impose our values, at this point?
Our task is not to vainly assert superiority but to prove by deeds to Cowen and all like him that, yes, the time for complacency has ended. It is the time to create and to transcend. The time has come for humane, admirable, inspiring alternatives to both democratic leveller-activism and resigned, complacent matching as an end in itself.
We can do without the idols of Progress. We don’t need permission and we don’t need popular support. We can do it in our own backyards.