Red Pills & White Rocks: An Addict's Guide to Neoreaction
As seen in Medium , 10/30/20
When I was coming up, it was more common for a young man to describe himself as apolitical. As a fringe musician, raised on punk, metal, and jazz, in various underground scenes in New York, there was always some basic assumption that, if I ever were to dig my heels into a proper political ideology, it would be something on the left end of the spectrum, given the attitudes baked into my social and cultural milieu: opposition to corporate power, openness to radical otherness and difference, and a commitment to some general concept of the minoritarian. But, even as reading theory became a serious hobby of mine over the years, it was always more about philosophical questioning for me, rather than ideological identification or commitment. My sense of what it meant to be a weirdo artist never required, maybe even precluded, committing to any agenda or activism. Any “politics” I had were implicit, vague, subconscious.
My pseudo-intellectual internet wanderings led me to encounter the far-right political ideology known as neoreaction (NRx) in early 2017, right around the time of Trump’s inauguration. If you’re not Extremely Online, you might not be familiar with this esoteric niche. The main thrust is a fundamental rejection of the concepts of human equality and social progress, and the conviction that democracy is socially and politically degenerative. Neoreactionaries want more authoritarian forms of government, and they tend to view fascism the way some of the far-left views Stalinism: a horrible failure mode of ideas which, fundamentally, had some real merit. NRx’ godfather is a computer programmer, blogger, and highly erudite armchair historian known at the time as Mencius Moldbug (née Curtis Yarvin), who set the movement in motion in the late ‘00s with his blog, Unqualified Reservations. One of Moldbug’s better known quips is that America needs to “get over its dictator-phobia”. NRx took a few years to spread outside its tiny cult of low-empathy tech types, before crossing the radar of hysterical aesthetes like myself. The trope of the Red Pill, however, which Moldbug lifted from The Matrix and repurposed as neoreaction’s cure for progressivism, very quickly surpassed the movement in renown, being taken up by truly vile, cretinous groups, such as pick-up artists, White Nationalists, and actual fascists.
Even with my own ideological vagueness, I had spent 2016 riled in earnest, vocal, anti-fascist panic (not without good reason). But somehow, my first glance at Mencius Moldbug’s lambasting of democracy neither kindled my Nazi terror, nor did it suddenly convert me to some new rightist position. I had been gradually realizing that what was happening in America, and globally, while indeed scary, was something more complex and strange than simply Holocaust 2.0. My sense of what was even going on in the world had become less certain, and my visceral fear of real-world genocidal violence had tempered enough that I was able to at least read these reactionary texts, without my mind immediately spasming in violent, epistemically allergic counter-reaction. NRx didn’t seem hateful to me. Cold-blooded, but not pathological. I quickly became fascinated.
My primary source for neoreactionary literature was the YouTube channel of one Friedrich von Uxküll, a man about whom I knew nothing, other than that he uploaded homemade audiobooks of various politico-philosophical texts. These ranged from the xenofeminism of Helen Hester, to the super-fascism of Julius Evola, with NRx being only a part of the landscape. These long MP3s are produced using an online text-to-speech engine, every text read in a truly uncanny, robotic cadence, the spliced words sampled from an old-school British voice actor. The effect is like a disdainful cyborg aristocrat, sneering at the idea of Liberal democracy, for chapter upon chapter, in a digitally stilted Queen’s English, made all the more dry by its inhuman glitching. This synthetic patrician would become a truly bizarre conspirator of mine for the next year and a half, in my small room in Queens, where things went off the rails.
That winter I also relapsed into cocaine addiction, which had been an on-and-off issue for me for the three years prior. I’ve never been an abject fiend by any means, but coke had, time and again, significantly compromised my ability to function. Quitting had proved difficult and tenuous enough that the word “addict” is apt by any standard. This relapse, at the time of writing, was (God willing) my last. Not only was it my worst, but it took on a uniquely eldritch texture, as it became deeply entwined with my secret, growing obsession with neoreactionary ideology. This was not the weekend sociality of art school kids, hooking up over key-bumps in a Brooklyn bar bathroom. These were the isolated compulsions of a man nearer to 40, spiraling away from his sense of reality. It was a cold season.
By the end of 2017, my semi-nightly ritual ran thus:
- Tell myself all day at work that I’d go home and soberly meditate after dinner
- On the M train home, start listening to the British robot YouTube audiobook of a neoreactionary text, usually either Mencius Moldbug’s Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives, or Nick Land’s The Dark Enlightenment
- Begin muttering the anti-egalitarian arguments under my breath, rehearsing imagined heated debates with my progressive-minded friends
- Feel manic, heart rate up, unblock the dealer’s number, pick up a gram outside the subway
- Cook up the powder into crack in my room, while the pro-authoritarian treatise droned on in the background
- Pace around my room for five or six hours, taking blasts from the pipe, intermittently pausing the audio to manically repeat the arguments, my thoughts and words often spiraling tightly around one minor talking point for several minutes, sometimes even locking into the rapid-fire repetition of a single sentence
- Turn YouTube to a meditation video at dawn, and try to get a couple hours of sleep, before heading to work again
Cognitive dissonance is, for some, a high. Encountering ideas that are threatening to the unspoken foundations of one’s worldview, but coherent enough to be replicated or paraphrased in one’s head, can provide a rush. I’ve never taken pleasure in being contrarian simply for the sake of provoking people. Trolling myself, however, gave me quite a dopamine hit. Thinking through Moldbug’s arguments against basic egalitarian concepts like universal human rights, and his outrageous re-evaluations of monarchy, feudalism, and even slavery (oof…) didn’t suddenly erase my fundamentally left-leaning sense of the world. Rather, the sheer force of the collision between the two realities, the pure voltage of the dissonance, yielded me those sweet neuro-treats. Because my political sensibilities had only ever been vaguely felt, never conscious enough to be entrenched, and the reactionary arguments were cogent enough, I was able to think through these deeply right-wing thought experiments alongside my pre-existing assumptions and experience the ideological friction without one side prevailing. Every taboo, reactionary idea that I entertained gave me a little dopamine bump, and it kept me coming back to that YouTube channel, hitting up the British robot night after night, looking to cop some more rightist thoughts. The epistemic vertigo paired with cocaine like fish with a Chardonnay.
One of the linchpins of the neoreactionary worldview is an extremely high estimation of the genetic basis of human personality traits, behavior, and abilities. Coupled with a silicon-clad faith in the usefulness of IQ testing and other psychometrics, NRx attempts to slash through all of progressivism’s increasingly complex social-constructivist explanations of human affairs. The hardline nature-over-nurture truth-claim is what a lot of the ideology rests on. Call it a much-needed splash of cold water, facile elitism, or Saran-Wrap-veiled racism, the whole topic of biological determinism became a particularly seductive point of fascination for me. I couldn’t tell whether my fixation was on the moral horror of how these ideas have been used in the past, or if it was more about my own existential discomfort at the possibility that the ideas might have some truth to them. With respect to my mounting addiction to thinking about the topic, it almost didn’t matter. Either way, the thoughts were getting me high.
Just as the dopamine blasts from chronic cocaine use forge new neurological pathways, so the repeated replication and internalization of these NRx talking points were carving new circuits of reward in my brain. The more I “did” neoreaction, the more confused I became. Was I being brainwashed by something evil, or at least something factually false? Did I even have a clear sense of what “evil” means to me? Did I believe these ideas? Or was I just running these thoughts in my head as a study, “researching the enemy”, as a generous leftist might put it? What does it even mean to “believe” something? When it comes to attempting even basic diagnoses of how the social world objectively works, whether it’s through the lens of economics, psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology, feminism, or critical race theory, hard proof is hard to come by. And as for moral evaluations, what is morality but an aesthetic judgment? As addictively scary as NRx ideology was, what was even more dizzying for me was this growing suspicion that, perhaps, all ideology is nothing more than simply an addiction to certain thought patterns, reaping their dopamine rewards.
What was pulling me toward neoreaction wasn’t just rational argumentation, but, maybe even more so, processes of neuro-chemical arousal. This is essentially a biological model of ideology. It’s almost non- or meta-political. On some level, NRx itself seems almost to subscribe to this model, whether it knows it or not. The trope of the Red Pill and its antithesis, Wokeness, are the central polar symbols of the current culture wars. Wokeness is a metaphor based in waking life versus dreaming, truth versus falsehood. The Red Pill, on the other hand, is a physiological image that implies dosing. Despite its proponents’ various appeals to reason and data, the drug metaphor itself is implicitly post-truth. While neoreaction exposes progressivism as brainwashing, its pill symbol suggests that NRx itself may just be another form of mind control. What was really frightening to me about the Red Pill wasn’t that it might be true, but rather the possibility that nothing (or everything) is true. Who knows for sure how things really work, so just pick your truth-poison, swallow it whole, and view the world through that particular system of thought-circuits, taking those dopamine rewards. In this NRx daze where I found myself half-dosed, not only was biological determinism the absolute truth behind human affairs, but pure biology was, itself, the mechanism for my becoming convinced of that truth.
Thinking about the dissolution of the ideological into the biological, and then experiencing the thinking of that thought as, itself, an instance of that very dissolution, became a maddening feedback loop for me. I felt increasingly haunted by the words of Nick Land, another neoreactionary philosopher, who was well represented in the British robot library. Land described thought itself as simply “something that matter can do”. The combination of my pseudo-red-pilled mental spiraling and my cocaine addiction were making me feel like I was nothing more than matter. Land, before he took an NRx turn, was a huge figure in accelerationist thought and cybernetic theory, along with Mark Fisher, and their forbearer, Gilles Deleuze, thinkers originally associated with more leftist politics. Left, right, or whatever, checking out all three of them while blasting crack took my psychic unraveling to the next level.
While reactionaries like Moldbug attack universalist humanism as a political theology, cybernetic thinkers like Land, Fisher, and Deleuze, question the integrity of the human being itself as a philosophical subject, and as a physical organism. The human is just an intersection of various machines, either abstract or physical. This perspective resonated with, and fueled, my experience of addiction even more than neoreaction did, my thoughts and behavior feeling like runaway, autonomous, mechanical processes. “I” didn’t feel like a single, integrated being anymore, but a nexus of countless systems, chemical, psychological, ideological, infinite. Even the New York subway system, which carried me home from work every day, triggering my drug lust, was part of this machinic assemblage, as was my job itself, which directed flows of capital through my wallet, out into the drug trade, and beyond. NRx thought had reduced my humanity to pure biology, and now accelerationist/cybernetic theory called into question where my biology even begins and ends. Mark Fisher, borrowing from Deleuze and Burroughs, describes addiction as a cybernetic process, a “becoming-inorganic of the organism”. I had no interiority anymore. I was being opened up, unfolded toward the Outside.
Over the course of 2018, the intrusive, manic looping of all these thoughts spread outside my secret chemical ceremonies, into the daylight hours when I wasn’t even high. Refuting the neoreactionary and accelerationist arguments in my head with long-familiar leftist, humanist arguments only fueled my mania further. First thing in the morning, I would debate with myself out loud in the shower. People started noticing my lips moving in public. Talking with friends, and even with people I had just met, I found myself steering conversations far afield, toward my right-wing obsessions, even after consciously reminding myself every morning not to, just as I would continually vow to quit coke. I would end up bombarding people with what a psychiatrist would later refer to as “pressured speech”. Even in this state, it was still difficult to say whether or not I “believed in” these far-right agendas, or even in their fundamental truth-claims. In fact, my compulsion to spit the arguments at anyone and everyone almost seems, in retrospect, like a plea for them to prove me wrong, to talk me down from my addiction to the thoughts.
By the fall, I had gotten quite good at cooking crack, and I knew large sections of Moldbug and Land texts by heart. My thought loops were nearly round-the-clock now, and had monomaniacally fixated on what’s perhaps the most socially unacceptable current in neoactionary thought: population genetics and evolutionary psychology, (put more frankly, race realism). This single idea was the most seductively disgusting attack on my long-held, implicit sense of the world, and what a unified sense of “humanity” even means. When Nick Land blithely, and somewhat compellingly, tweets “Man is many” alongside a genetics study, he’s also saying “Humanity is nothing”. The cybernetic sense of man as mere biology, a mechanism among mechanisms, was already humiliating and terrifying to me, and adding ancestry and evolution into the mix dragged me down further, dissolving me into ancient processes, even further out of my control than the drug use or the obsessive thinking. As much as I tried to stave off the flood of eugenics-friendly thoughts by attaching softening qualifiers like “Well, to whatever limited extent this could be true…”, or “… but hey, that doesn’t necessarily mean that…”, it was still impossible to contain my addiction to the vertiginous horror of the concept.
None of my friends were spared my thought-torrents, especially my non-white, queer, and trans friends, the very people who, ostensibly, would probably be targeted first by the darkest political uses of eugenic thinking. Perhaps they would be the best people to help me wrangle these thoughts and bring me back to my old self (but what’s a “self”? And who was I, supposedly, in the first place?). My roommate at the time was a dear, and luckily very patient Puerto Rican friend. I would begin our morning chats over coffee with a self-deprecating Jewish joke and, within five minutes, escalate from there to a sputtering, all-too-serious diatribe against my own Ashkenazi DNA, my brain as nothing more than inbred meat, and the entirety of my anxious personality as merely the biological malfunctioning of a certain breed. On two separate occasions, I showed up to brunch with a black friend and collaborator in tears, ranting about how neither of us were “ready to handle the truth about human biodiversity”. Any attempts to calm me with nurture-over-nature arguments were met with outright hostility. My manic confusion about what’s true in the world, what it even means to be human, and how I was going to regain control of my body had reached panic mode. The thoughts, the speech, the coke, the days, just kept happening, and happening.
Luckily, getting my act together was much quicker than the arc of the relapse itself. A month of confinement to my parents’ house gave me solid momentum toward sobriety. I did little besides push-ups and reading, still focusing on difficult theory, but from thinkers across history, across the political spectrum, and from actual books rather than YouTube hypnosis. I found some other philosophy nerds online to chat with, and it was grounding to exchange ideas, rather than secretly snorting and smoking them alone with the British robot. Discussing neoreaction with others made the ideas far less threatening, dopaminergic, and addictive. I connected with some academics who had checked out NRx, without subscribing to it, which made me feel less alone and paranoid. Our friendly discussions felt more like food for thought than a zero-sum ideological war.
Re-reading Foucault, Žižek, Mark Fisher’s more anti-capitalist work, and even good ol’ Marx, were all good pivot points away from neoreaction, as were my new discoveries, Reza Negarestani, Peter Sloterdijk, and Fred Moten. It turned out there were thinkers from all over the map who critiqued the ideas of progress, universalism, and even democracy, in ways that I found more interesting, now that I was sober. I saw that humanism, and “the human”, so fiercely assaulted by neoreaction, acceleration and cocaine, had also been critiqued from other perspectives, with the intention of expanding and evolving the concept, rather than tearing it down entirely. These thinkers didn’t even diametrically oppose and defeat NRx in my mind. It was more like they were cutting lines diagonal to it, lines which weren’t even necessarily completely incompatible with NRx, just different.
As for sucking on that most forbidden conceptual crack pipe, race realism, my compulsion gradually abated. Logically, the idea still seemed like it might fall somewhere within the grain-of-truth realm, but discussing it sober, with my thoughts moving at a more manageable pace, there was space for me to be reminded of the very obvious, though complex, web of nine million other probable factors behind why people are the way they are. I would still occasionally joke with my dad, a child psychiatrist, about the possible implications of our ancestry, but we would always gently land back at the uncertain, yet comfortable position of “Hey, who really knows when it comes to that genetics stuff anyway”. Most importantly for my own health, because my own biology was becoming more regulated, the entire concept of biological determinism no longer felt like such a threat to the concept of humanity, and no longer consumed my thoughts.
I’ve been sober for nineteen months, at the time of writing. Nowadays, I take a small daily dose of Lamictal, a mood stabilizer, and my experience of life is one of vastly increased self-possession. Once in a while, my girlfriend will catch me muttering under my breath, as the NRx thought loops begin to spin again; but with me no longer addicted to the dopamine-shock of each forbidden thought, the counter-arguments are effective as negative feedback, closing the system. Those thoughts have also worn out much of their taboo power, so they don’t arouse my neurons nearly as much as they once did. Writing music, which had never fallen away for me, but was hampered by my addictions, now brings me more peace than ever. I’m genetically hard-wired to do it, and years of composition have dug some very strong, healthy neural pathways for me to run through. Mencius Moldbug has returned to the public eye, now writing under his birth name Curtis Yarvin. His new prescription is the Clear Pill, which seems to promise a gentler, more ideologically supple critique of both liberal and conservative values. Maybe he’s on a journey, like me and everyone else. He’s smart, and I’m enjoying following his output (though not too closely).
Having returned from being a glitching, right-wing crack-cyborg, now with new, better-functioning chemical software installed on my brain’s hard drive, I’m still no ideologue or activist. Yes, I believe that current wealth inequality is vile, the U.S. systems of policing and prisons are a horror, and all of this helps perpetuate a situation that can accurately be labeled white supremacy. None of this was actually ever really up for debate for me. Other than that, however, I don’t walk around with a particularly clear assessment of how the world works, politically, socially, economically, or genetically. One thing I can confidently say, however, is that humanism, even in all its vagueness, its almost religious irrationality, is, at the very least, a word I can get behind. It doesn’t necessarily imply any set of hard facts to me. What do I know? I’m just a singer. Maybe, for someone like me, humanism is best understood as an aesthetic. Maybe it’s only a personality type, being a “people person”, just a vibe I’m into, nothing more than a sweet melody. It’s probably as close as I’ll ever come to an ideology. Anyway, whether it’s a low-grade mood stabilizer, the Clear Pill, or even a few normie milligrams of the Blue Pill, I’m prepared to swallow whatever Noble Lie will get me through the day feeling like a human being with some sense of agency and stable identity, however philosophically quaint the ideas of humanity, agency, and identity might be.
Still, I can’t leave this simply as a neat redemption story of personal progress, or even a full-circle narrative. Despite my regained personal sense of humanity, and my newfound confidence in claiming a humanist orientation toward my fellow man, the world doesn’t seem to be headed that way. Dopamine is what appears as reality’s prima materia, not Love. The world’s sharpest minds are devoted to engineering more and more efficient, more invasive, technologies to exploit neurological reward mechanisms. Social media mines our brain-meat all day for chemical capital, the algorithms shape-shifting like demons, demanding that we splay our synapses for them. Corporate power reaches its tentacles so deep inside us, so materially, so elegantly, that the inside/outside distinction fundamental to our psychological and biological integrity, to organic life itself, is in a constant state of crisis. Capitalism appears as the only possible reality, and, just like cocaine, it’s built on runaway positive feedback loops, acceleration, depletion, debt, and deferred collapse. However sincere and “human” this piece is, as I finish writing it, I’m already envisioning the pure number of likes, shares, retweets, react emojis, and comments, all working in the service of corporate behemoths. By the time you read this, all my human investment, all my lived experience itself, and all your reactions to it, will already be in the process of liquidation by the quantitative, the statistical, the algorithmic, getting us all high, as the story dissolves, and dissolves us, in the cold mechanical Outside of techno-capital.
A few months into my sobriety, I asked the psychiatrist how long I would have to take the Lamictal before we determine that I’m back to normal. She said that my brain may have been changed permanently, carved up by the pathways of cocaine and obsessive thinking, and that the meds may be necessary forever. One night, soon after that, I lay awake in bed with my girlfriend, listening to a YouTube meditation video. The guide lady whispered “Your thoughts are not you”, and I wept.