Just when you think you’ve reached the darkest, scariest, most occult corners of the crypto space, you find something even worse. That thing is Dark Enlightenment, a disturbing philosophy espoused by the fringe-ier outliers of the crypto community that feels like libertarianism taken to the nth degree and applied only to the select, entrepreneurially gifted few. It brings cyborgs into feudalism and merges Silicon Valley’s startup ethos with the “selective breeding” originally proposed by Plato. It’s what would happen if more members of the alt-right read Nietzsche and H.P. Lovecraft instead of Donald Trump’s tweets.
Well that’s a lot of words. Really, what is the Dark Enlightenment?
At its core, the Dark Enlightenment is a neo-reactionary philosophy started by Nick Land, a continental philosophy professor at the University of Warwick until the late 1990s. There, he cofounded the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit with colleague Sadie Plant, whose writing went on to influence cyberfeminism. After Plant left the CCRU, Land led the group to study his diverse interests, which included the occult, rave culture, science fiction, and the philosophies espoused by post-structuralists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Post-structuralism insists that knowledge can be founded on neither experience nor more definitive, fundamental truths, which to believers connoted a sort of freedom. Freedom from, in a sense, the basis of knowledge itself.
In 2012, Land wrote an online manifesto titled—you guessed it—”The Dark Enlightenment.” It condemns democracy and cites libertarians like Peter Thiel, quoting his belief that freedom and democracy are not “compatible.” It has ten parts, compares immigrants to zombies before you can scroll even a quarter of the way through, and quotes major political and cultural figures ranging from Alexander Hamilton to Winston Churchill, noting Hobbes, Marx, the Terminator, and, importantly, Mencius Moldbug.
Moldbug is the pen name for Curtis Guy Yarvin, an American software engineer and prominent neo-reactionary/Dark Enlightenment thinker. He has endorsed slavery, noting that some races are “better suited” for it than others. He also believes that feudalism is superior to democracy.
In his modern feudalism, kingdoms would instead look like corporations, with CEOs as sovereigns. Without those pesky chains of democracy holding him back (for it would surely be a “him”), the CEO can make decisions that would be necessarily beneficial because they’d be financially profitable. The CEO would have a very high IQ, or would perhaps be a cyborg, exemplifying the crossroads where eugenics and the singularity merge in a horrific, sci-fi dystopia. Kind of like the 1997 movie Gattaca, except that some people actually want it to happen.
Besides these racist creeps, who’s into this?
Steve Bannon has reportedly read Yarvin’s work and, according to Politico, was even in touch with him while at the White House (Yarvin denies this). Thiel, meanwhile, is a backer of Yarvin’s startup, Urbit, and seems to espouse Dark Enlightenment beliefs without even trying.
“A startup is basically structured as a monarchy,” said Thiel during a 2012 lecture at Stanford University, as quoted in this very thorough look into the connection between the Dark Enlightenment and Silicon Valley by Quartz. “We don’t call it that, of course. That would seem weirdly outdated, and anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable.”
Though closely associated with the alt-right (you know, because of its blatantly white supremacist views), the Dark Enlightenment is more elitist than populist. That “selective breeding” Dark Enlightenment proponents are a fan of should be, in their eyes, between people with high IQs—white people with high IQs, or maybe East Asians, if you’re reading Land’s blog (which I don’t recommend you do). Trump, in Land’s view, is indicative of democracy’s broken nature, not a cause for celebration—even though you’d think his xenophobic, white supremacist views would line up neatly with the Dark Enlightenment’s. Turns out Trump isn’t intellectually enlightened enough.
So what does this have to do with blockchain?
Good question. There are a few connections. One is Yarvin himself. His company, Urbit, is a peer-to-peer network made up of personal servers that aims to let users genuinely own their own digital identities. “In Urbit, network identities are cryptographic property, like Bitcoin,” says the Urbit website. “If Bitcoin is money and Ethereum is law, Urbit is land.”
Last September, Yarvin and colleague Galen Wolfe-Pauly announced in a blog post that Urbit would be moving over to the Ethereum blockchain. The announcement made sure to note, however, that though Urbit doesn’t endorse any particular blockchain, “Bitcoin is the strongest chain.”
It’s interesting that Yarvin refers to Urbit as “land,” considering his feudal aspirations. Everyone being able to own their own digital land seems at odds with Yarvin’s belief that only the worthy, high IQ CEO-kings should rule. On the contrary, Urbit is described on its website consistently as a “republic,” where “property rights are contingent and accidental, not moral or meritorious.”
Then there’s the aforementioned overlap between the Dark Enlightenment and the white supremacist, anti-immigration groups, like the VDARE Foundation. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the VDARE site as “a place where relatively intellectually inclined leaders of the anti-immigrant movement share their opinions.” One of its biggest contributors is Peter Brimelow. Both he and Land have been connected to the LD50 art gallery in London, which has provided a platform for neo-reactionaries and neo-Nazis. The Shut Down LD50 Tumblr specifically points to Land promoting “racism, in its eugenic, ethnonationalist, and cultural varieties.” Brimelow/VDARE’s bitcoin wallet receives donations rather frequently.
Land and Yarvin, being digitally inclined, both had thoughts on bitcoin during its early days. Yarvin believed its price could “fall to zero and remain there” in 2013, the same year he wrote that in a blog post. In discussing Yarvin’s post on his blog, Land eventually writes, “Bitcoin is God Nyarlathotep.”
Nyarlathotep is a dark, chaotic deity in Lovecraft’s fictional universe that walks among humans, usually disguised as one.
Please don’t ask what this says about bitcoin.