The Cathedral and the Vampire Castle
October 9, 2020
Some loose thoughts on similarities and differences in Curtis Yarvin, Mark Fisher, and Hanzi Freinacht. See also my post on accelerationism.
Curtis Yarvin’s analysis of progressivism as a decentralised program of control is striking in its structural similarity to many contemporary critiques of capitalism.
What Yarvin calls the Cathedral names a concrete entity, the same that Mark Fisher calls the Vampire Castle. These both identify a bourgeois social structure that shapes the boundaries of public discourse to serve its interests. But they have different opinions about what it is, where it came from, and how it functions in relation to the status quo.
For Yarvin the Cathedral is a product of the success of progressivism (understood as an impersonal memetic force). For Fisher the Vampire Castle is not a reflection of progressive politics, but rather an appropriation of them by bourgeois interests—a product of the gentrification of the left.
Both see the existence of this social structure as a systemic rather than moral issue—its existence depends on no intentional conspiracy. As Jo Freeman argued, elites function best when their members do not recognise that they belong to them (Freeman, 1970).
But there is a question for both: why the link between bourgeois prestige and progressive politics, specifically?
Answer 1: There is no particular reason, that’s just where we happen to be in the fashion cycle. Political tastes can and will change with the season.
Answer 2 (Yarvin’s): Progressivism exists in a concrete lineage of thought that has its origins in Quakerism. (Similar points have been made by leftwing commenters, for example David Graeber recently speculated about the links between cancel culture and Puritanism.) That it has become popular in bourgeois circles is a reflection of the virulence of the meme, which has found a host in those with most influence.
Answer 3 (Fisher’s): It is an inevitable response to contradictions inherent in capitalism. It is true that capitalism has produced widespread alienation and social injustice, and progressive politics arises as a legitimate response to those concrete realities. It is therefore these real forces of resistance that capitalism must neutralise by reducing them to tokens of bourgeois chic.
For Yarvin the existence of this structure is a bad thing because it produces constant arbirary change. (Change for the sake of change is required to provide endless new stakes to be played for in the bourgeois prestige game.) For Fisher its existence is bad because it suppresses the change required for emancipation.
Others seem to think it is a good thing. Hanzi Freinacht argues that change being driven by competition for social capital is a positive when social capital accrues to e.g. artists, visionaries, or social justice advocates. Competition for social capital is theorised by Freinacht as a means of getting beyond the competition for money capital that requires endless consumption of material resources.
Freinacht’s argument is reminiscent of an old transhumanist response to the problem presented by capitalism’s infinite growth model. The argument was that once material needs were met capital itself would become increasingly virtual, and ultimately could be decoupled completely from material resources. Infinite growth could continue within the constraints of finite resource consumption.
In Freinacht’s model the transition from money capital to social capital represents such a virtualisation. The Fisherian response is that the required decoupling is impossible. Because it is a prestige game, access to the marketplace of social capital is limited, and its entry fee is paid in none other than money capital. They do not form autonomous domains of value—social capital is rather embedded within and conditioned by the circulation of money capital. According to this critique Freinacht’s model cannot work, for roughly the same reasons that trickle-down economics cannot work.
Yarvin champions money capitalism as a means of liberation from prestige. Freinacht champions social capitalism as a means of liberation from money. Fisher doesn’t see much difference between these views, and thinks that the mediation of value creation by any kind of market mechanism is sufficient to foreclose the possibility of liberation.
- Freeman, J. (1970). The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 17, 151–164. [PDF]