76

A Response to Curtis Yarvin

The neoreactionary writer is too pessimistic about the prospect for higher education reform
76

The writer Curtis Yarvin recently posted a criticism of the conservative takeover of New College of Florida, where I serve on the board of trustees.

Yarvin, who has built a cult following on the “neoreactionary” Right and the “post-Marxist” Left, is best known for advancing the thesis that the progressive-managerial state, which he calls the Cathedral, is so powerful, that any action to challenge it will end up reinforcing its power. The better solution, Yarvin counsels, is to adopt the posture of a prey animal, find satisfaction through aesthetics, and wait for the American Caesar.

I disagree. Yarvin’s philosophy is an expression of self-fulfilling pessimism. To a certain extent, the conservative takeover of New College has already been successful. We immediately fired the former president, abolished the DEI bureaucracy, banned coercive and discriminatory “diversity” programming, and brought in former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran—a man of great tenacity and courage—to lead the turnaround effort.

Furthermore, our initial campaign at New College has already had a ripple effect: multiple states, including Florida, have introduced legislation to abolish DEI bureaucracies at all public universities, and the higher education establishment has expressed fear that a conservative counter-revolution has begun. At a minimum, we have proven that the political commissars are not inevitable, not invincible, and not untouchable.

Even if one accepts Yarvin’s premise of inevitable failure—and I do not—he would be wise to remember the words of Leo Strauss, who, in a critique of Edmund Burke, counseled that principled action, even against immense odds, can yield unexpected results:

“[Burke failed to understand] the nobility of last-ditch resistance. He does not consider that, in a way which no man can foresee, resistance in a forlorn position to the enemies of mankind, ‘going down with guns blazing and flags flying,’ may contribute greatly toward keeping awake the recollection of the immense loss sustained by mankind, may inspire and strengthen the desire and the hope for its recovery, and may become a beacon for those who humbly carry on the works of humanity in a seemingly endless valley of darkness and destruction.”

Transcript

There has been so much media coverage about our takeover of the New College of Florida down in Sarasota, and the commentary runs the gamut. Conservative outlets have been heaping praise upon our initiatives there, Governor DeSantis’s campaign to reform higher education. Meanwhile, liberal outlets have been hyperventilating in opposition to this saying that it is illegitimate for conservatives to use political power to take over a public institution. They believe that public institutions should always be liberal, and should always be progressive even in a red state such as Florida.

But there was an article that came out this week that I think deserves some attention because it’s something that’s a little bit different, it’s a little bit more interesting, it’s a little bit more unique. It’s from a writer named Curtis Yarvin. And if you don’t know Curtis Yarvin, he is a neoreactionary philosopher. He has a kind of cult following within, let’s say, the conservative movement, but actually also people that are on the far-left or the post-Marxist movement.

He’s a really unique figure, someone with whom I don’t agree on everything, but I’ve met Curtis. I have kind of a personal affection for Curtis. I think he’s a very smart person that always has a unique opinion, even if it’s one that is somewhat transgressive. And so Curtis’s argument in this Substack post called “Acorns for the Culture War” says that our campaign to turn New College into a classical liberal arts institution is doomed to fail, and is actually more likely to reinforce progressive cultural power or left-wing hegemony.

He has this metaphor, he says that there is a Cathedral, a decentralized oligarchic alliance between tech companies, government agencies, universities, and media corporations—all of the opinion shapers in our country are united behind a left-wing orthodoxy that he believes is almost unbreakable. And any attempt to break through that hegemony, such as taking over a small liberal arts college in Sarasota, Florida, ends up actually reinforcing the power of the Cathedral, in his telling.

But I think Curtis is completely and totally wrong for a few reasons. The first reason is that this is really a right-wing doomerism. It’s a form of right-wing fatalism. It’s an argument that we don’t have agency, everything is arrayed against us in such a powerful way that there’s nothing we can possibly do. But we should drill down into the specifics, and get out of these metaphoric abstractions about the Cathedral and the regime, and all of these other very obscure sounding, but all-powerful entities. Get down to the specifics of: what are we doing at New College?

Well, we took over the board. The first thing that we did within our first hours of administering the college, we fired the president. We brought in former Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran who is a very strong and dynamic leader, he knows education, he’s not afraid of a fight, and he has taken the mandate for reform from Governor DeSantis, and he’s going to be aggressively pursuing it.

And we’ve already changed not just the dynamics at New College. Even this week, we abolished the DEI department, we became the first university in the United States to do so. We said, “No more neo-racist discrimination. No more racial scapegoating. No more so-called diversity statements that are really political filters.” And all of these actions, within just a month, have not only changed the dynamics in New College, have not only changed the dynamics in the state of Florida, but they’ve sent the entire higher education system scrambling.

You see this from the news coverage. I mean, people are sensing that we have broken a taboo. We have said that public institutions are ultimately responsible to the public. And when conservatives win elections, they get a mandate to reform institutions to reflect the will of the voters that put them in office. We’re not going to simply dally around the edges. We’re going to make substantive, hard-hitting direct reforms. We’re going to do it with a speed and a decisiveness that is unprecedented, but absolutely necessary.

And so the left within higher education really went into a panic, you can see this from the media coverage. No one had ever done a full frontal assault against left-wing orthodoxy within higher education. And they’re sensing that they’re no longer invulnerable, they’re no longer untouchable, they’re no longer invincible, and that voters are no longer going to be writing a blank check every year to public universities that take that money to promote DEI bureaucracies and to push left-wing activism against the values, and will, and democratic wishes of the majority of citizens in those states.

And so with this small beachhead, this small initial campaign, we’ve already demonstrated that we can shift broader dynamics. We’re working on huge leverage here. We’re actually taking this as an example, as a proof of concept, and as an inspiration to other leaders. All of a sudden, we’ve seen a couple of things happen within the past 30 days. We’ve seen legislators in the state of Florida introduce legislation to abolish the DEI bureaucracies in all Florida public universities. That’s going to be dealing with tens of millions of dollars in defunding. It’s going to be changing the game on a large scale.

We’ve also seen Texas legislators signal that they want to do the same. West Virginia legislators, legislators in Missouri, legislators in Utah, legislators in all of these other red states looking at what we’ve done at New College, looking at what Governor DeSantis is doing in Florida and saying, “That’s a good idea. We’re going to replicate it. We’re going to now bring these ideas to scale, and we’re going to now lay siege to the left-wing racialist bureaucracies that have captured the public universities in an undemocratic fashion.”

Nobody in Texas is voting for DEI bureaucracies to be everywhere, to be racially segregating scholarships, and to be deliberately excluding professors on the basis of race and political identity. Legislators are saying, “You know what? We’ve let this go for too long. We’re taking a stand. We’re going to make changes.” And I think ultimately Curtis’s fundamental flaw is that he would have us adopt the position of a prey animal; lean back, don’t make too much noise, kind of hide in the shadows, and try not to get wiped out.

Look, that is a perfectly fine, adaptive response in maybe a state of nature in the animal world, but we’re human beings, we have a human nature, but we also have the ability to imagine beyond our immediate contingent circumstances. And so I can see a university system that is far superior to the one that we have today. And I think we have then a duty and an obligation to fight inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by yard in order to get there.

And then I think that Curtis’s real error is that he says, “Well, everything will be doomed to failure. You’re just going to reinforce your enemy’s power.” This is kind of an excuse to then maybe do nothing. And then, of course, as a neoreactionary, he hopes that this system decays and may lead to a kind of imperial or a monarchical system, which I oppose again. I still believe in the American Republic. I still believe that our democratic power as a people is meaningful. I still believe that our legislature has the capacity to govern our states and our country in the best interests of the American people.

And so by saying that if we believe all of those things to be true, we have a responsibility then to take action to turn those concepts into a reality. And I think inaction validates the kind of pessimistic idea of inevitable American decline and decay. Our more optimistic formulation creates not the guarantee of victory, but it certainly opens up the field of possibility for victory.

And one thing that I really recommend that we take seriously is this idea that one action toward a transcendent ideal, towards the greater good, towards the true, the good, and the beautiful can sometimes yield secondary results that you don’t expect, but open up new terrains, new possibilities, new levers of power, new solutions, new political ideas. And so merely by taking that first action, you’re creating the possibility for more. I really believe that. I’ve always seen that in my own personal experience.

I think history also shows that sometimes small groups of people with a strong vision that take decisive action can lead to an unexpected almost Rube Goldberg-like ripple effect that has unintended consequences that are not necessarily bad but are sometimes very good. And so when we’re operating from a position as conservatives where we control almost nothing with regard to elite institutional power, just taking that first strike I think has already yielded already more possibilities for us.

I have confidence in New College. I have confidence in someone like Governor DeSantis. I have confidence in our great legislators and conservative states. And I have confidence that at the federal level, we have enough smart and courageous people that if we give them the ideas, we create the conditions for action, and we provide a kind of North Star, something that we’re all shooting towards. We can be successful not just at, of course, reforming New College, which is a symbolic victory in a large system with thousands of colleges and universities in the United States.

But we can start to change the fundamental incentives, the fundamental dynamics, and the fundamental principles on which these universities operate. I’m optimistic, and so I would ask you to join me for an optimistic defense of our democratic republic, and I would ask us to engage politely, but ultimately reject the Curtis Yarvin doomerism that I think leads to a path of fatalism, defeat, and despair.

76 Comments
Authors
Christopher F. Rufo