Silicon Valley capitalist Marc Andreessen has released a manifesto that decries efforts to restrain the genius of tech billionaires. Drawing heavily from Nietzsche and Hayek, it’s the same old right-wing elitism in new packaging.
Marc Andreessen, cofounder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco on Tuesday, September 13, 2016. (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
In earlier eras, the manifesto was an important organ of radical political and aesthetic movements; prominent examples in the history of the genre include of course those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, André Breton, or, more recent, the Dogme 95 group. These days, in which radical political ideas of the Left or the Right have only recently begun to become mainstream again, it is unsurprising that the manifesto seems to be a historical relic.
But the genre received a new entry with Marc Andreessen’s “Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” published last October on the website of Andreessen Horowitz, perhaps the very bluest of Silicon Valley’s blue-chip venture capital firms. That apparently radical manifestos are now being produced by billionaire technocapitalists might be cause for alarm among our nineteenth- and twentieth-century ancestors. But it really shouldn’t surprise us, at least those who pay attention to the kind of rhetoric coming regularly from Sand Hill Road and its environs. Hardly content with the accumulation of fortunes unprecedented in history and their resulting political power, a small number of our new ruling overlords clearly want to be taken seriously as thinkers, too.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this new phenomenon of the “philosopher-tycoon” is Andreessen, Silicon Valley’s “chief ideologist.” His manifesto has provoked many responses from the tech and business press — much of it spot on, almost all of it negative. But so far there’s been little comment on the intellectual forebears of Andreessen’s manifesto. Examining the history of the ideas that Andreessen is trying to pass off as novel insights for the digital age demonstrates that his manifesto mines a familiar repository of right-wing tropes.
The Tradition of Aristocratic Radicalism
While Friedrich Nietzsche’s outsize presence in the “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” has been noted in previous commentaries, others haven’t sufficiently appreciated the magnitude of his influence on Andreessen. The manifesto is best understood as the latest iteration of a conservative intellectual tradition long associated with Nietzsche, that of aristocratic radicalism.
This term first appeared in 1889, in the Danish critic Georg Brandes’s “Aristocratic Radicalism: An Essay on Friedrich Nietzsche,” the work that launched the long vogue of the then-still-obscure German philosopher. Its roots stretch back a century earlier, functioning as the animating spirit of classical conservatives like Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle and even exerting a significant influence on the nineteenth century’s consummate liberal, John Stuart Mill. But it is in Nietzsche that the doctrine acquires its most powerful, persuasive, and terrifying expression, and it is through the figure of Nietzsche that the ideology has diffused itself around the world and across time, including to Andreessen himself.
While aristocratic radicalism has appeared in many flavors over the course of the past two centuries, each of its adherents agree on three fundamental truths. First, there exists a natural ruling elite — an aristocracy, albeit not necessarily one rooted in property or title — possessing an exclusive remit to govern all of society. Second, the principal problem of modernity is identified as the ever-increasing intransigence of the great mass of ordinary human beings, our obstinate refusal to submit to the directives of our betters. Third, the aristocratic radical is convinced that, at some point after the events of 1789, our whole civilization has become imperiled, and that, if we are to survive, elites must dramatically reassert their power over the ceaseless demands of the masses.
Nietzsche’s variant of aristocratic radicalism is distinguished by its pronounced “cultural” bias, insofar as he takes the ruling elite to be constituted almost exclusively of the great men (and certainly only men) of culture. Culture, conceived as the sum total of the great creative personalities produced by our species — poets, artists, prophets, thinkers — stands at the top of Nietzsche’s table of values. Indeed, the production of such figures is understood as the purpose of nature itself, for it is only when the perfect personality appears that “nature then feels that for the first time it has reached its goal.”
While this may seem encouraging for those of us who still believe in art, the price of Nietzsche’s valorization of culture is rather steep. Many of Nietzsche’s apologists have attempted to separate his theory of culture from its necessary — and profoundly alarming — political and social consequences. But this risks overlooking the fact that if, as Nietzsche reasons, the production of great men of culture is the telos of our species, it naturally follows that the whole of society, its political institutions and its social structures, must be reorganized to facilitate that production. To do otherwise, even to consider the impact of the activities of the Great upon the Not-Great, is to act contrary to nature.
Although the emergence of such “Olympian men” is nature’s ultimate purpose, according to Nietzsche nature has hardly improved its effectiveness over the course of millennia. The vast majority of us, the 99.999 percent, amount to little more than “human misfires” with little to offer other than unquestioned obedience and servitude to the Olympians. In the third of his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche says:
The young person should be taught to regard himself as a failed work of nature but at the same time as a witness to the grandiose and marvelous intentions of the artist: nature has done badly, he should say to himself; but I will honor its great intentions by serving it so that one day it may do better.
Nietzsche envisions here a kind of turbocharged form of Carlyle’s “heroarchy,” a model of social organization characterized by a perpetual chain of servitude, according to which the Not-Great consecrate themselves to the needs and the desires of the Great. Incensed at the patent refusal of the mob to voluntarily align itself with the grand designs of the große Mann, Nietzsche would begin to call for steadily more extreme measures to be inflicted on all those who he began to refer to as die-Viel-zu-Vielen — “the many too many.”
Whereas Nietzsche valorizes the great men of culture, Andreessen instead holds up the “Technological Supermen” as the saviors of civilization. While the great men of finance certainly have a place in Nietzsche’s political program, theirs is ultimately a supporting role. But this apparent gap can be bridged with reference to the thinker who stands between Nietzsche and Andreessen in the aristocratic radical tradition.
No less a believer in the right of a handful of “superior persons” to direct society’s affairs, Friedrich Hayek emerged well after the traditional means of aristocratic legitimation had been discredited. In confronting the problem of how to select a ruling elite, he developed a wholly novel solution. With hereditary title no longer a viable option (or, for that matter, excellence in poetry or art or philosophy), Hayek instead turned to the next most desirable qualification: the superior persons are those who have previously demonstrated their mettle in the tribunal of the competitive market, which is a slightly less irritating way of equating individual greatness with the amassing of wealth.
It is one thing to declare that the greatest among us are simply the richest among us, but a little more challenging to persuade the Not-Great that this is true. Here we encounter the soft, or cultural, aspect of Hayek’s program of neoliberal counterreform: the long effort to recast the formerly sober and philistine man of capital into a daring adventurer, a Promethean creator, a große Mann for our unhappy age.
That this project has succeeded beyond Hayek’s wildest expectations is, sadly enough, evident everywhere. We may only recall how Matthew Weiner convinced so many (perhaps inadvertently) that the figure of the adman was the essence of mid-century cool. Whereas Nietzsche would have howled in protest at this blasphemy, we of course “think different.” For many of us, the age-old distinction between art and commerce, a conflict that has shaped so much of aesthetic modernity, has melted away.
That it has for Andreessen — who finds “eros” in “the electric light” — is clear enough. In a gesture he surely sees as devilishly clever, he “updates” a passage from “a manifesto of a different time and place,” simply by subbing out “poetry” for “technology.” Say what you will about Italian Futurism — at least it was an ethos that hallowed the power of art.
If Andreessen has managed to stumble a step beyond Hayek, it is here. Whereas for Hayek the great man of capital was meant to displace the great man of culture, for Andreessen the Technological Superman effectively absorbs the traditional role of the poet-artist-philosopher. Hermes has, along with virtually everything else, swallowed up Apollo and Dionysius.
One of the more irritating (and predictable) aspects of Andreessen’s thinking is his embrace of the latest Silicon Valley fad, “effective accelerationism.” (Only a year ago or so, before a series of unfortunate events down in the Bahamas, it seemed the hot new thing was “effective altruism.”) We can set aside the theory’s absurd pretensions to scientific rigor (note the appeals to the laws of thermodynamics!), as well as its rather questionable provenance in the CCRU (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit) pioneers of the 1990s.
EA 2.0, underneath the surface, amounts to little more than a laughable effort to rescue EA 1.0 from its demonstrated failure. Whereas Sam Bankman-Fried and his Oxonian enablers sought to amass wealth in order to do good, accelerationists simply declare that the pursuit of riches is a good in and of itself, that the magic of the “technocapitalist” system ensures that we all benefit.
From the perspective of the history of ideas, it is difficult to find anything novel in effective accelerationism. Nietzsche no less than Andreessen diagnosed his age as in the midst of profound crisis. And just as Andreessen chafes at the increasingly nasty contents of his Twitter feed, Nietzsche lay awake at night replaying over and over in his mind’s eye the ominous one-two, one-two of imaginary Communard boots descending upon the Louvre. Nor could Nietzsche be accused of pessimism, for he too, despite the magnitude of our supposed civilizational crisis, saw our species as on the cusp of renewal, as is abundantly evident in his increasingly prophetic later writings, those that hail the imminence of the Übermensch.
Provided, of course, that ordinary people like you and me do not muck it all up. Aristocratic radicalism as a social theory is first and foremost a call for the removal of all the “artificial” barriers the mob erects in the pathways of the Great. Every indulgence, every fancy of the Mighty Men of Culture must be permitted, flattered, adored.
Here the resonances with effective accelerationism are most powerful. EA 2.0 seems to be little more than a demand for the removal of all obstacles standing between the Technological Superman and the object of his desires. If we reverse the usual direction of intellectual history, we might very well describe Nietzschean aristocratic radicalism as a form of “cultural” or “aesthetic” accelerationism.
The Ethical Bankruptcy of Techno-Optimism
Then there is the “ethical” dimension of techno-optimism. Andreessen proclaims that his doctrine might very well be “the most pro-human thing there is.” Here Andreessen and Nietzsche really part ways.
From the perspective of “the rest of us” — the great mass of humanity incapable of becoming Technological Supermen — a question immediately arises: What happens when the needs and the desires of the elect come into conflict with those of the ordinary?
Much of the “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” is devoted to providing a response to this objection. Rather unconvincingly, Andreessen tries to assure us that the interests of the techno-elite and the interests of ordinary people are in fact one and the same. Summoning up a tired old cast of market-fundamentalist grifters (Hayek, Milton Friedman and sons, and so on), he concludes simply that “technological progress therefore leads to abundance for everyone.” “Intelligence” and “energy,” when harnessed to engine of the free market, naturally result in a “a positive feedback loop” primed to “make everything we want and need abundant.”
Once again, nothing real new here. The same year that Nietzschean aristocratic radicalism began erupting across Europe saw the appearance of socialist William Morris’s News From Nowhere, which heralded the coming of an Epoch of Rest. It didn’t take long before capital began to appropriate this noble idea for its own purposes, with Bill Gates only the latest in a long line of nervous tycoons dangling the prospect of a three-day workweek. Hold out a little longer, let us keep doing our thing, and before you know it, everyone will be whiling away their days in luxury space capsules.
Nietzsche, for his part, would never stoop so low; he would be incapable of this kind of pandering. In contrast, he says clearly the interests of the masses and the elite are in conflict, not just at the present moment but necessarily, for all time. Nietzsche hardly stops here, arguing further that the progress of the cultural elite must be purchased at the expense of the the rest of us. In an 1871 essay on the ancient Greeks, he writes:
In order that there may be a broad, deep, and fruitful soil for the development of art, the enormous majority must, in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle. . . . At their cost, through the surplus of their labor, that privileged class is to be relieved from the struggle for existence, in order to create and to satisfy a new world of want. . . . The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.
The salvation that Nietzsche promises is not for ordinary people — it is only for a tiny circle of the elect. Andreessen would have it that he and his cohort are working for the well-being and the flourishing of all of us, that the astounding feats of the Technological Supermen will enrich and embolden even the humblest of us human misfires. This square cannot and can never be circled. Either he has fatally misunderstood Nietzsche, or Andreessen does not really believe what he is saying.Original post