Reading and attempting to summarize Curtis Yarvin’s essay “The Four-Stroke Regime,” published last week in The American Mind, brings to my mind two authors; one real, the other fictional.
The real author is Mario Vargas Llosa, who famously described Mexico as being ruled by “la dictadura perfecta,” through which a single party (until recently) has held control of the country’s institutions without the reliance of caudillos and with an ostensibly legitimate, uninterrupted electoral process. The fictional author is Eli Cash, whose famous narrative formulation in The Royal Tenenbaums I’m going to borrow in order to echo Llosa and to place it in Yarvin’s mouth. “We all know that the United States is a Good Regime,” begins the cowboy-hatted Yarvin, “forged by an uncorrupt constitution and a democratic spirit, while lately being vulnerable to usurpation by totalitarian forces. What this essay presupposes is: What if it already has been?”
This may be a convoluted route of summary; but I beseech the reader to cut me some slack. An essay by Curtis Yarvin (née Mencius Moldbug) is the intellectual equivalent of an escape room in a brutalist high-rise. Only a small elect have managed not to get lost in the density and discursiveness of his philosophizing, laid as it is with “traps” of obscure references, bespoke jargon, and a wit synthesized from high meme literacy and residual Gen X sarcasm. As such, Yarvin defies easy ballparking, perhaps by intent. Yet the present 4,800-word behemoth, the first in a series of five essays, is distinct in its desire for some kind of clarification. It seeks, as the editors’ note suggests, “to set the record straight on this thinking, his critics, and his radical challenge to all political frameworks.” This essay, then, is not for the elect (though he throws a great deal of fan service their way) but for simpletons such as myself, to whom, SO FAR AS I CAN TELL (and I cannot emphasize that enough), he would like to tell a story.
The story seems to be as follows: The United States went to war in the 1940s against two dictatorial regimes (and a smaller one I have forgotten) with Satanic and far-reaching designs for worldwide power. United States, with the aid of Truth, Justice, and the superhuman ability to not contract syphilis, defeated these regimes handily. And at the cost of everyone in between, the United States ended up becoming a worldwide power.
The psychological ramifications of this transition on Americans were significant. First in imbuing them with the confirmation of their moral rightness and in the benevolence of their government; and second in simplifying their idea of what constitutes malevolent government. America has long been affected by a Saving Private Ryan mindset—in a word, a Dad Syndrome. “Factually, few eras are better known to today’s historians than the Third Reich.” But, he adds, “[a]ny understanding of the vanished institutions of the loser tells us next to nothing about the living institutions of the winner.” This has left us with an impaired political vision. The American obsession with the Third Reich enabled an understanding of it as our mirror image in a moral fantasy that happened to leave millions of casualties in its wake. It’s our own personal bizarro polity, stripped of historical circumstance of any kind. When conservative pundits like Rod Dreher and the like sound the Weimar alarm for whatever reason, it goes unheard, far weaker in volume than the film in our national headspace of paratroopers storming Normandy with flame-spouting wands, Patriots helmets, and Godsmack swelling all around them.
To disabuse us altogether of this fantastic thinking, Yarvin shifts the story into thought experiment, in which he invites us to imagine not one but “two kinds of Orwellian regimes,” which he compares to two-stroke and four-stroke engines, which I will attempt to recap as clearly as possible.
Two-stroke regimes are “one-story” states. They have a single narrative which its citizens accept as true, or are required to think is true. Two-stroke regimes are closest to the generic Orwellian model. They are “efficient, but unstable” and require repression.
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 four-stroke regime, by contrast, is a “two-story state” that prefers “soft illusion” to repression:
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.
If it is not already apparent, the four-stroke regime feels sort of familiar, “a hypothetical Orwellian regime shaped a lot like ours. We have no evidence at all that it is like ours.” Such a regime is divided between a civic and political core. The civic core is made up of the civil service as well as extra-governmental “civil society,” such as the press, philanthropists, and academia. Readers sympathetic and antagonistic alike will recognize the “deep state,” the “fake news media,” and the “cultural Marxist” academy. In a previous life, this was called the Cathedral by Yarvin and his neoreactionary followers. On the left it’s the “state ideological apparatus.” This civic core “guides public opinion,” upholding democracy as “a spiritual phenomenon, a force for good and a source of purpose” that is free of the negativity of raw politics.
I can’t put my finger on what the political core actually is other than class-based alliances—urban “gentry” and proletariat “clients” against suburban “commoners”—with “incompatible theories of government.” The gentry make up the civic core and are followed by the clients. The commoners, by contrast, see government as a “nation-wide HOA,” their politics are “cultural or tribal,” they are “well-armed” but not martial, their belief in elections is essential. That is a correct summation of the suburban worldview, though I found Yarvin’s terse assessment wanting. He does not go into detail as to the morality that undergirds it, which is in tension through an outward pastoral perfection (immaculate lawncare, timely garbage and recycling, coordinated block parties, small sporadically used churches) on the one hand and hard pragmatism clouded with gray areas (neighborhood watch, college admissions, “speaking to the manager”) on the other. This oversight is not limited to Yarvin, of course. A healthy fraction of “the Discourse” is ambivalent or unclear about the suburbs, its dwellers, how they enable social strife, and how they occasionally suffer by it. But I digress.
These alliances, in any case, are in a protracted and, for the time being, cold civil war, with the civil core practically more powerful than the political core and with Congress serving as a kind of “unaccountable and democratic” valve between the two, delegating rather than wielding power, and fortified by its contradictions. It is collectively unpopular and replaceable by the people, but with a high rate of incumbency. It is a deliberative, and at one time elite, body whose “real job is fundraising and PR.”
As I understand it, this is Yarvin bringing us up to speed, through his unique powers of abstraction, on where we stand now. The civic core, having been stable for so long, are imbued with “the freedom to screw up.” Though one’s freedom to screw up is another’s clinging to a fiefdom of social influence. Congress balances the interests of its activist staffers and corporate lobbyists with that of the civil service, “following the inspiration of the press, the judgment of the academy, and the generosity of philanthropy. This real constitution is written nowhere.”
It’s easy to conclude, then, that this will come to a head in a big, and not at all good, way. Not only because Yarvin says exactly that with the emergence of a (sigh) “three-story state” but because this drives in near-perfect parallel with the consensus emanating from the Claremont section of the American Right: Weimar is now, the worst might be yet to come:
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!” Yarvin counsels. “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,” adding later that “a ‘third’ story is not dangerous if it cannot possibly succeed.” Cold comfort, no doubt, for true-believing citizens of a liberal state running out of less ugly options; and also something the “conservative revolution” movement of the Weimar Republic probably had in mind up until its luminaries were killed (Jung), absorbed (Schmitt), or sidelined (Papen, Jünger) by their own “third story.”
This, presumably, is what society is to be like without the option of his “clear pill,” the central theme of his entire series. Here, the pill “says nothing about the real world … 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.” That sounds kind of like a Dumb Starbucks version of the veil of ignorance, but Yarvin promises at the end of the series to detail “what to do with your new blank slate.”
There’s not much I can add without having read the forthcoming essays of the series, which, I suspect, are meant to tell each popular variant of political extremism how poorly its own “story” will not fit in the perfectly imperfect dictatorship he has laid it out here.
What “The Four-Stroke Regime” clarifies the most for me is how much has changed in the political landscape between Moldbug’s retirement in 2014 and Yarvin’s resurgence in 2019. The intellectual adventure is over, or at least under a tarp until further notice. The movement “outsiders” are inching closer to the sliding-glass door of the McMansion on a Hill, eager to articulate a new conservative ethos that goes beyond memes or Trumpism or whatever people are mad at David French for to the shadowy overlords watching TV in the den. In other words, in an already fairly unpredictable era, the blogger formerly known as Mencius Moldbug moves—by degrees, but still—from spellbinder and trapper to advocate and explainer.