The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Max Borders. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Max Borders. Max is a futurist, a theorist, and a published author. He is written several books. I’ve read them all, they’re all good. And he’s the founder and executive director of Social Evolution, a nonprofit organization dedicated to liberating humanity through innovation. And he’s just an all around interesting guy who I always enjoy talking to. Great to have you back on Max.
Max: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Jim.
Jim: We’ll have a good conversation today. I should also note that I am a subscriber to Max’s very interesting Substack called Underthrow, and I’m even a paying subscriber so he can send his kids to college. So y’all subscribe and pay the young man, so he has to eat something besides gruel going forward. Oh, he is good. One of these days I’m going to have to start a Substack, but man, I’m too lazy to have to crank shit out two or three times a week.
Max: Oh man. It can be a real trial, I’ll tell you that, feeding that beast. But I really enjoy it. But man, every weekday is tough.
Jim: But you’re a good writer. You are a natural writer, unlike me who struggles with it. So I probably have to work carefully with ChatGPT or something if I’m going to crank out a whole essay three times a week. But anyway, we are going to talk today about two of Max’s essays that came out on his Substack, and they are in response to a essay that’s gotten lots of circulation, which is Christopher Rufo’s, “The New right activism, A Manifesto for the Counter Revolution.” Max has responded with two essays, part one and part two of “Rufo the Reactionary.” And so we are going to work through those two essays, and he actually did something that was interesting. I wish people did this more. He took Rufo’s essay, chopped it up into chunks, and then had some commentary on each chunk. And it was very relevant right, in place, right where it belonged, right?
So it wasn’t blather about blather, not correlated. It was highly coherent. So it was very good. And we’re going to try to emulate that style where I’m going to read Rufo’s stuff and then Max is going to respond to the degree necessary. I will steel man Rufo if necessary and we’ll see where that goes. But before we hop into that, I’m going to have Max define a couple of terms of art, three terms of art that he uses, just so we won’t have to stop in line and slow the flow to do that. The first are the expressions, “Pillar Saints” and “Boy Pharaohs.” Now these are terms that are used on a kind of a cranky philosopher’s mailing lists that Max and I both belong to, but Max, you use it in the essays. Go ahead and define those two terms for us.
Max: Sure. And I need to credit Alexander Bard who as far as I can tell, coined these terms at least in this kind of context. And I’ll do my very best to attenuate and distort the meanings in my own particular American fashion because Alexander Bard is Swedish. But let’s start with the contrast. These are two contrasting ideas, pillar saint and boy Pharaoh. Imagine a pillar saint is someone who is all head and no gut or no body. In other words, they stay in the clouds or they stay in their high-minded or highfalutin Kantian or Platonic paradise, talking about things, thinking about things, but never actually doing anything. The pillar saint is someone who is cloyingly and annoyingly all about the intellect and all about moralism, but never really about getting anything actually done.
Now by contrast, we have the boy Pharaoh who lacks that intelligence almost completely, and the associated heart, they’re just all body, they’re all brawn and no brains really. And that’s really, as we position the boy Pharaoh here, that can be kind of an insult. It’s not to say that boy Pharaohs can’t be smart. They can certainly be strategic. But they lack that moral clarity and they lack that intellectual heft. And so the boy Pharaoh is usually a strategic politico type, someone who is interested in power for its own sake. So that’s really the contrast there between the Pillar Saint and the Boy Pharaoh metaphors.
Jim: Yeah, I found when I was Googling around, to get a little more clarity on it, someone came up with a list of 10, which I thought was quite interesting and categorized. That must’ve been somebody from the Bardian universe.
Max: Oh, shit, really? That’s interesting. Because I just came up with 12 of my own, but I’ll have to look and see what they put. Yep, yep.
Jim: Well, let’s go. I’m going to go through them right now. Greta Thunberg, pillar saint. Donald Trump, boy Pharaoh. Yuval Harari, pillar saint. Gavin Newsom, boy Pharaoh. Patrick Deneen, pillar saint. Hillary Clinton, boy Pharaoh. Ibram X. Kendi, pillar saint. Justin Trudeau, boy Pharaoh. Emmanuel Kant, pillar saint. Joseph Stalin, boy Pharaoh.
Max: Ah yes, this is my list. Okay.
Jim: So I found your list. I didn’t even know it.
Max: That’s right, that’s right.
Jim: That’s hilarious. Anyway.
Max: No, what I was saying is that was I had come up with 12 other archetypes and we can talk about those on another show.
Jim: That’s funny. Because I just googled it and pulled it off a page, probably didn’t even look whose it was. It might’ve even been in one of those super summers. Anyway, so that’s what you’ve just said, but then those examples give people a sense of what you mean when you say a pillar saint versus a boy Pharaoh. Now the other term you use, not quite so extensively, is “the Gray Tribe.” This is a fairly obscure term, but it’s been around at least since 2016. So tell us what you mean when you say Gray Tribe?
Max: Sure. This is really the coinage of the pseudonymous author Scott Alexander. I think the Slate Star Codex was the name of the old one, Astral Codex 10 is the new one, I think. But in any case, Scott Alexander’s the guy who coined this tribe and really he’s trying to draw a distinction between what is this third grouping, that’s different from a red tribe versus blue tribe? We’re all familiar with that. It’s the conservatives versus the progressives, and they are in a manner of speaking archetypes of their own, and they run Orthogonally to the Boy Pharaoh and Pillar Saint archetypes.
But you’re familiar with these personality types. Red Tribe has their own set of values and things they like to do. They’re beer and football and Republicans and Trump. And Blue Tribe is all about lattes and intersectionality and taking over the elite institutions of higher learning. So given these kind of rough sketches, I think what Alexander wanted to do is come up with this third one. And I think in our past conversations we’ve talked about it. You’d said something about people who come out of Silicon Valley, and that’s not wrong.
I identify with that gray tribe. They’re really people who want to sort of transcend the left/right dichotomy, they don’t feel like they fit in either one. They’re really sort of technology forward, they’re future forward and they see technology as a means of making interesting kinds of social change. And so the kind of stuff I consider my 2018 book, “The Social Singularity”, which is the first time you had me on the show, to talk about that book, really a manifesto for the Great Tribe. I don’t know if Scott Alexander would agree, but we’re going to go with it.
Jim: All right, sounds good. And as you know, I align with neither Team Red nor Team Blue. I find both of them completely off in what’s really going on in our world. My politics are very heterodox. I can sum it up in just one sentence. Which is I am a vociferous supporter of both gun rights and abortion rights. So what party do I belong to? Both of them would burn me at the stake, so hell with them. So I guess I have to be gray tribe if forced to choose a tribe, but I’d rather just be a cranky, disagreeable heterodox. So, before we hop into the meat of your essay, let’s talk a little bit about the phenomenon of Christopher Rufo. I mean, this dude has really been making a mark in the world over the last 18 months, two years.
Max: Oh yeah. I mean the one thing I can say about him is he is a rock star, and you might even say he’s a conservative or even reactionary rockstar. That’s been hard for anyone to achieve up into the last four or five years I’d say. But the right is spawning its own personalities and cults of personality around these folks. I see this and I see the kind of things that Rufo does and they’re absolutely fantastic to watch. I mean, honestly, Jim, you and I share a love of watching gladiatorial combat with wokies. If you want to call them social justice fundamentalists, these are the folks that he really goes into attack. It is a mutation of the progressive left that is the social justice fundamentalist, and they’ve really taken over a lot of these highest echelons of power. So in that sense, he’s fun to watch. He is an absolute kick-ass gladiator for this. But, we want to know what else is there?
Jim: In his manifesto, which I’ll read the title, “The New Right Activism, A Manifesto for the Cultural Revolution.” I think the key, well a couple of these phrases are key, “New Right” is, I mean there’s been a new right ever since 1968, every few years there’s a a new, new right, right? But this new “New Right” is something actually new. There’s a bunch of people staking out a space. When you hear the phrase “New Right”, what does that bring to your mind, in 2024?
Max: Yeah, well one can’t help but think about another boy Pharaoh, and that is Trump. And I think there has been a new right that is a more populist right, that has really squatted on the psychosocial sensibilities of the working man. Right now, I would say the right is the party of the working man. If the Democratic Party ever was, that those days are no longer. They are the party of the elites and the aspiring elites. And so the new right, as far as I can tell, is a far more populist, more culturally driven, I mean at the tip of the spear issues like immigration and culture warring and things like that. And antipathy towards the elites. I think those are primary drivers of this new right.
Now in terms of this new new right of which you speak, sort of a Trumpism squared, and this is really why I’m wondering about Rufo. Like to what extent does he go in for Trumpism and this sort of populist new right, which is undeniable. What is it that he’s looking for? He’ll sort of casually drop words like virtue and things like that. But really it seems like what this new right is all about is strategy. It’s like, “How do we encourage more and more people to engage in bloody combat with the left, and in particular, the social justice fundamentalists?” That seems to be his shtick. I spent a good deal of both essays exploring that hypothesis.
Jim: One thing you didn’t mention is, and it’s certainly not true of everybody in the new right or even all Trumpians, there is an undeniable racial component as well. Because when we say the working class is with the right, that’s the white working class is overwhelmingly with the right. Though it is worth noting that both the Hispanic and the black working class is starting to move a bit in the direction of the right. So that siren call is going out to all non-four-year college educated people essentially, as a reaction against elites. But at least so far there’s still a fairly strong racial component to that line, and sometimes, especially from the more unsavory characters, there’s a actual racial component to the rhetoric. Think of the Charlottesville shitshow with actual Nazis and such. And unfortunately one can put them in this broader new right tent and I’m sure Christopher Rufo would disavow such folks, but they’re out there in the same way the Antifas and the real crazy people are out there with the left. So we have to keep that in mind.
Anyway, let’s, the format for our discussion, as Max and I talked about beforehand, I’m going to read some stuff from Christopher’s essay and then Max is going to respond. So let’s start at the beginning. “The right is reorganizing most intelligent conservatives, especially younger conservatives who joined the political fray at a moment of sweeping ideological change, already recognize that familiar orthodoxies are no longer viable, and that ideas without power are useless. The right does not need a white paper. What it needs is a spirited new activism with the courage and resolve to win back the language, recapture institutions, and reorient the state towards rightful ends.” What do we make of this?
Max: Yeah, I mean I think what’s really great about this opening is that it has the benefit of being vague or at least ambiguous and also being forceful. I used to be in one of the three boxes or to really mangle the metaphor, all three boxes at once of politics, policy and punditry. The three Ps. And I came to realize a long time ago that these boxes weren’t doing anybody any good. Before I left it I used to call it the white paper industrial complex.
So he’s not wrong. There’s a sense in which these free market organizations, or these right-wing organizations, the Heritage Foundation, AEI, and to some extent some of the other smaller organizations, are all about generating white papers and tossing them over the moat at people in Washington DC. Only they don’t give a about your white paper. They care about what slinks from the coital bed of Mama Money and Papa Power. I think that there’s a sense in which he’s right, and this is a dazzling opening. But I’m left with the question, what is the rightful ends that he is organizing towards? Right? He says, “And reorient the state towards rightful ends.”
Jim: Yeah. The two things I pulled out of this is, “Recapture the institutions and reorient the state.” One could, at one level, could see that meaning a very principled long march through the institutions, the reverse of what the left did, or it could also mean brown shirts with bayonets coming and clearing out. What do you think he means?
Max: Yeah, I mean I think recapturing the institutions is counter-Gramsci, which is Rudy Deutsche. He essentially encapsulates this Gramscian model of capturing the institutions. And there’s nothing particularly creative about this idea of just doing it back, tit-for-tat. And so that’s of concern. And then when he talks about “Reorienting the state toward rightful ends”, man, that sounds to me like I don’t know somebody that we usually reserve the F word for, which is Benito Mussolini. But let me not get too far ahead of myself.
Jim: All right, well let’s go on. “This essay will introduce the basic principles of this activism.” Activism is a word he uses throughout. “Where it begins, how it might work and what it must do in order to win. It is not, not, conservative in the traditional sense.”
Max: Well, and I think there’s an extent to which if someone reading this and seeing its vagueness would say, “Sure, we need to get active. What does that mean?” I mean so far he’s referenced the Gramsci model, which is to capture the institutions. I’m reminded of this website called Beautiful Trouble, which is just all of the shitty tactics, excuse my mouth, that the social justice fundamentalists use, and I think he just wants to do them back. Again, I find this sort of tit-for-tat way of thinking particularly unpleasant, and a kind of failure of imagination on his part. Activism, according to traditional conservatives, is unseemly. They don’t want to stand out in the streets and put pussy hats on or whatever the equivalent on the right is. And of course there was January 6th, which was I guess a species of activism, was meant to be a protest. It either burned out of control or was something the deep state kind of organized, and people can quibble about whether and to what extent either is the case.
But the fact is conservatives don’t usually do activism per se, and he’s saying they should. They should be what? Doing more marches? And he doesn’t really say, he doesn’t really get specific about what they should do. But I will note that one of the things that Rufo did in collaboration with folks like a buddy of mine, Phil Magnus and others, is to find the plagiarism to bring down Claudine Gay, who as you may or may not know, was the president of Harvard, who after six months was finally asked to resign after a couple of missteps and was eventually outed for plagiarism. Now, that is activism. They said, “Oh, she was targeted.” She was guilty of plagiarism, and if someone was to find evidence of a murder and say, “Well, they were targeted. No one would’ve known about the murder had she not been targeted, and people hired a bunch of private investigators to look into it.” That is relevant to a degree, but not so relevant that she shouldn’t have been asked to step down from that role.
Jim: I don’t think it’s relevant at all, frankly. If a public figure gets into a shitshow and people want to go look through their record it’s the way it goes. I mean certainly the wokies have been doing that forever, they go pawing through people’s tweets for the last 15 years and “Oh my God, you said buttfuck or something, and we’re going to burn you at the stake.”
Max: “You made a gay joke in 2011!”
Jim: Yeah exactly, right. I never did buy that objection to Rufo. And I got to say, it shows how much of a brilliant field general he is. What kind of odds could you have gotten in September 2023 that Christopher Rufo would bring down the president of Harvard? And he waited till he had the goods, he didn’t leak any of it, and then he came, boom. So whether we like him or don’t like him, this is a relatively talented field general. Another thing I’ll point out from that last bit that I read was, “It is not conservative in the traditional sense.” And this gets to your point, that traditionally, conservatives did not like public uproars. January 6th was a turn in a different, maybe more dangerous direction. One could imagine even something like a Black Lives Matter series of nationwide riots if Trump were convicted, for instance, as an example of new right activism. Could you see that happening?
Max: I could very much see that happening. And Rufo’s being a reactionary that my critique of him in this regard doesn’t make me admire someone like Mitt Romney who is clearly conservative in the sense that he can’t imagine anyone thinking it was a good idea to even get near those hallowed halls of Congress on January 6th. And yet, I think this idea of he doesn’t say, would he think that January 6th is a good idea? Would he have been alongside some of the deep state operatives in trying to get people to go “Into the Capitol, into the Capitol”? I can’t say, and he doesn’t, in his essay. He’s short on details, so it’s still a little bit of a mystery, but he is saying just do activism. It’s too vague.
Jim: All right, let’s go on. “The world of 18th and 19th century liberalism is gone, and conservatives must grapple with the world as it is. A status quo that requires not conservation, but reform and even revolt.”
Max: Yeah, this is the thing that I kind of agree with and kind of don’t. And that’s what’s so frustrating about reading this essay. Because we can’t put our finger on exactly what he’s saying or what he’s suggesting. He’s just saying do a lot of things that are similar to the Jacobins. So personally, Jim, I have a dual aspect to myself when I read this essay, and I’ll call it my Jeffersonian side and my Burkian side. Now Edmund Burke is a liberal conservative of the 18th century, to which he might appeal in saying this. It’s like, okay, Edmund Burke. But the world isn’t like that anymore.
So the status quo requires not conservation in the Burkian sense, don’t tear down any Chesterton’s fences, but it means reform or even revolt. Now this is what’s so contradictory about Rufo here. On the one hand, I agree with him that we need reform or even revolt. We don’t need Burke when it comes to these institutions, especially the institutions of higher learning. They’re completely infested and they’re rotten and they’re ruined. However, all he wants to do is reconquer them and staff them with his people, and inculcate his conception of the good, or at least that seems to be the case.
So on the one hand, he doesn’t want to raze the institutions, because that would be what real reform or revolt is, instead, he wants just to do counter activism. Be a counter revolutionary in the Gramscian sense and take it over and shove his one true way down your throat. At least that seems to me to be the case.
Jim: That seems a reasonable read. I mean you’d imagine, I think guys like you and I would be, let’s say in public schools to the degree we have to have public schools, they should have objective and politically neutral curricula. If we can say that the curricula has now been captured to some significant degree by the radical left, Rufo doesn’t say let’s return it to neutral, he’d probably want to make it radical right. And use the power of the state to indoctrinate the youth.
Max: He sure does. He sure does.
Jim: That’s what it seems like. And you also contrasted in your commentary kind of the Burkian side with the Jeffersonian side of things. And I know I, living here in Central Virginia, I consider myself a Jeffersonian plus or minus at least. And with him, I still think that 18th, 19th century liberalism is something still worth fighting for.
Max: I agree. And it seems that he does too, but it’s hard to tell. Especially when on the one hand he talks about principles of this and that, and on the other sort of commandeering the state to right ends. So it’s like he’s full of contradictions and in fact, why don’t you read the next line, which suggests to me that these contradictions persist.
Jim: All right, let’s go on. Which is, “We don’t need to abandon the principles of natural right, limited government, and individual liberty, but we need to make these principles meaningful in the world of today.” Now there’s an interesting sentence.
Max: Yeah, I’m reminded, I don’t know if you remember on about 2007, 2008 during the financial collapse, and the financial crisis. When all of these banks were going under, and George W. Bush was at the end of his presidency, prior to the election of Barack Obama. So I guess it would’ve been 2007. And everything was going tits up in the economy. And George W. Bush with all the bailouts and all the stimulus said, quote, “I’ve abandoned free market principles to save the free market.” Unquote. And this is exactly how I read Rufo here.
Now, I may be wrong in reading him this way, but it sounds to me like me thinks thou dost protest too much. In other words, he’s just sort of hand waving or paying some lip service to principles. But what he really has in mind is that until we win, until we take over, all bets are off. So if you conservatives still like that individual rights, limited government, blah, blah, blah, fine, but we’re in a war. And you need to realize that we’re in a war, and until we take over and win that war and take that beachhead, you’re just going to have to fall in line behind us, and get those principles to be meaningful another day.
Jim: Well, of course, as we know in wartime, you do what you gots to do. There was no civil rights really in the United States during any of our major wars, from the revolution to 1812 to Civil War, to World War I and World War II. So if he is right, that we do need to fight a war, which I will not give my views on, but then perhaps a wartime point of view might make sense. Of course, it’s very dangerous.
Max: Maybe. Maybe, to what end? I mean it depends on which master you want to serve.
Jim: Yeah, that’s the means and ends problem.
Max: That’s right. And we can consider sort of counterfactual World War II, where it had been Stalin who had imperial ambitions throughout the rest of Europe, and maybe we would have made sort of a delicate temporary peace with the Germans in order to fight them. And then we would’ve had to live with the reality of the Holocaust after the fact. But there were a lot of people who supported Hitler in the United States prior to going into World War II. Of course, that zeitgeist changed with the war. But up until that time, there were a lot of people who were kind of into the Nazis, and into this idea. So I’m not so sure, because the way I read this is like, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, individual liberty, blah, blah, blah, founders stuff, but get in line behind me and just trust that when we get there, I’m going to bring that stuff back.
Jim: Okay, and this is where he really, I felt, takes on the establishment. “The older conservative establishment assembling in ballrooms and clubhouses. Country club Republicans, as I like to call them, has marginal influence over public orthodoxy because it lacks the hunger and grit to contest it. The energy is with a new generation.” Sounds an awful lot like the SDSs statement, the something or other statement. The new generation? “Which no longer accepts tired platitudes and demands a set of strategies geared towards truly overcoming the regime.” Overcoming the regime. “The opaque and coercive set of psychological, cultural and institutional patterns that has largely replaced the old constitutional way of life.”
Max: He’s not wrong. If I weren’t a member of the gray tribe, to some extent, I would say he’s not wrong. That conservatism as such, this sort of Chamber of Commerce Republicans, it’s really kind of bloodless and who can get behind that? That energy, that hunger and grit that he’s looking for, yeah, that’s needed. And in fact, I agree with him, in some sense, it seems like he is light on what he wants to achieve and why we should get behind him to achieve it. But he also, I think, discusses means to that very unclear end that are also more like just do like the left, except more and harder, and back to them.
And Jim, as you know from reading my books and speaking with me on your show, I’m all about subversive innovation. I’m all about changing people’s psychologies through sort of real moral suasion. And I think I’m interested in the way people have done revolutions all along. People like Gandhi. Say what you want to about the regime after Gandhi, like Nehru and that shitshow. But Gandhi himself and the idea of Satyagraha was a pretty noble effort to bring down the British Raj. Which was there arguably unjustifiably, I think you could say. People will argue with that, by the way, and some of them may be on Rufo’s team. But suffice it to say, I think that that was a justifiable movement and it was largely nonviolent.
Likewise for subversive innovation, and this is a term I coined, that means lowering transaction costs. It’s a threefold mandate. Lower transaction costs, raise the cost of predation, and lower the cost of exit. Perhaps to enter a new system. So with those three things in mind, you go out into the world and you create entrepreneurial ventures, or innovations, that instantiate this threefold mandate. So subversive innovation is really the way forward that I think misses this. It’s peaceful, it’s voluntary. You create rapid constituency groups quickly.
They overturned, for example, Uber overturned the taxi medallion monopoly back in 2012, and in some fits and starts I think has largely succeeded. We have Bitcoin. I know you don’t love Bitcoin, but you can see how Bitcoin, at least as a concept or a prototype and a larger fitness landscape of technologies could do better to unseat central power over finance. These banksters and their supplicants. So the idea for me is we can innovate around power, and we can innovate through power, and we can innovate against power. Not everything has to be going in and fighting back through the institutions through the counter long march.
Jim: Yeah, I think it was later in your essay you referenced the difference between the University of Austin and the new college.
Max: I mean, I do have my quibbles with the University of Austin. It is I think a great effort in the sense that it is a purely voluntary and entrepreneurial solution that allows people to instantiate a, and I know he doesn’t like the term, but heterodox view of the purpose of education, which is truth seeking, right? The liberal idea of the university is if you’re a Jeffersonian at least, is to seek truth and to create someone who is reasonable and civically engaged so they can self-govern, right? That was the original idea. I think to some degree, university of Austin does at least approach that.
That’s not to say that they don’t have lefties and righties and everything in between. They have a lot of different types, and maybe he doesn’t like that. Maybe he thinks the purpose of the university is to inculcate you with the truth in the one true way, and I’m suspicious that he does think that. But they’re doing a pretty good job in the sense that they’re creating something. They criticize by creating with the University of Austin, and they’re not taking other people’s money to do it.
Now, contrast that with the public institution, where Rufo just wants to march through the institutions and take over the top of it, and inculcate the students with his ideas of the good, which is exactly what the lefties did when they took it over. Right? So that contrast bothers me. A quick note on the University of Austin, they did go in for this whole thing about accreditation. They had to get accreditation in their minds in order to play ball with the big boys. I don’t know if I agree with that, I think it’s kind of a bad idea. And that is one of the means by which the institutions of higher learning have been captured.
Jim: That’s a practical matter, they’re kind of forced to because it’s a requirement to get student loans, and that’s unfortunately our tax dollars at work in a perverse kind of way. All right, let’s move along here. Next sentence. “This movement has the ambition of reestablishing a political vision that goes beyond procedural values.” Beyond procedural values? “And points towards higher principles.”
Max: Man, what’s the vision? What are the principles? I want to know, I’m gagging to know. Maybe I would get right behind you general and fight alongside you or behind you, but you haven’t told me what division is, or the principles are. At least not yet.
Jim: Next. “The first step is to admit what hasn’t worked. For 50 years establishment conservatives have been retreating from the great political tradition of the West. Republican self-government, shared moral standards, and the pursuit of eudemonia in favor of half measures and cheap substitutes.”
Max: I mean, I’m like, I can get behind this a little bit. Okay? It comes across as particularly vague. Eudemonia, right, he’s trying to harken to Jefferson and the pursuit of happiness, but he thinks that eudemonia is something, he uses this more Aristotelian term to try to evoke virtue and telos. I get it. I like that. There’s a part of me that really is into that. But I want to know, is he being serious? Is he being seductive? Or is he being a sophist, so that we’ll just get in line behind the red tribe. And earlier he said that he didn’t really like these 18th century liberal or libertarian conceptions. In fact, he shits on libertarians in this a couple of times. And yet Republican self-government, shared moral standards, and pursuit of happiness are very much 18th century liberal values. So I’m smelling contradiction here. I don’t know about you.
Jim: Yeah, and I will also say, although he doesn’t say it, I hate to be given guilt by association. But other folks, many other folks in the, so-called New Right are more of the Christian nationalism variety. So they’re not talking about Aristotle’s virtues, they’re talking about biblical literalism or other forms of theocratic government. Not to say that Rufo necessarily is that guy, but one has to wonder.
Max: One does have to wonder, we just don’t know. And it’s sure as heck not Trump. I mean the idea of Trump juxtaposed with virtue is truly a bizarre thought. Now, I’ve always thought that these Christian nationalists and their alignment with Trump has always been very strange to me, but nevermind that, it doesn’t seem like from this, that Rufo aligns to either one of those. So I don’t get it.
Jim: “The first of these substitutes is the self-serving myth of neutrality.” We talked about that earlier. The good 18th, 19th century liberal wants neutrality in our institutions in some sense. “Following a libertarian line, the conservative establishment has argued the government, state, universities and public schools should be neutral in their approach to political ideals.”
Max: As I’ve said before with you, Jim, I no longer wear the Scarlet L, which is the libertarian. I know Libertarians and I still share a lot of their priors. And so I’m going to say no libertarian I know wants to serve this idea of neutrality. A libertarian type, in fact, a gray, not only doesn’t want to instantiate neutrality in the institutions, we want to raze these institutions. We don’t care if righties or lefties are taking them over. Public universities are indoctrination factories, and it doesn’t matter for which team. And that indoctrination comes at the expense of a public taxpayer, namely the taxpayers, who may not agree with their conceptions of the good. So I say tear them down, libertarians say tear them down.
And in fact, the gray tribe, such as it is, my friend, you may have had him on the show and if not you should. His name’s Michael P. Gibson, who wrote the book, set the Paper Belt on Fire or something like that. He was a guy who sort of under the tutelage of Peter Thiel, who sort of used to be a member of the gray tribes, not clear now, started this program 20 under 20. And the idea was they wanted to encourage the smartest kids in the world who had an entrepreneurial bent to just forego college. Like Steve Jobs did, like Bill Gates did, like so many others, and start their own businesses. And he himself dropped out of Oxford in grad school. Beautiful philosopher and writer, but now he runs a hedge fund investing in young people who create businesses that create value. And he’s basically like F the university. So most of the libertarians I know have in some form or fashion want to see public institutions replaced or razed, not just restaffed with the right people like Christopher Rufo.
Jim: Though, let’s steel man Rufo a little bit, which is Libertarians regularly get 1% of the vote, right? Other than Tom Massey, I don’t know if there’s anybody who was even vaguely libertarian in our Congress, and I think Rufo’s point could be that unfortunately or fortunately, whatever the case may be, the libertarian ethos, small government night-watchman state is a dead letter since 1931, 32. And if there’s going to be these massive government entities, then it’s better that our side controls them than the other side.
Max: Yeah, I mean let’s say that that happened and Team Red won, whatever Team Red is, because really as principles and values are not fully and clearly articulated here. We can imagine that they might be something like Handmaid’s Tale. We can imagine that that is the vision that he’s bringing to the table here, that’s his concept of virtue. Something along those lines. I mean that to me wouldn’t be, if the public universities were dominated by that in the long march of the institutions from the right was like the Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know that that would be any better a situation.
Jim: I think it’d be worse. I mean, that’s worth going to war over. I mean, I’d get my God damn gun out and go start shooting them motherfuckers.
Max: Well, exactly. So that means I’m like, maybe you’re an enemy, Christopher Rufo. I can’t just believe because you want to scapegoat libertarians for the failures of conservatives that because somehow Libertarians whispered into the conservative’s ears, giving them this what I call satanic council about neutrality. No libertarian would do that. No libertarian has done that. The conservatives lost the academy because they got outplayed and period, paragraph.
Jim: All right. “The popular slogan that facts don’t care about your feelings betrays similar problems. In reality feelings almost always overpower facts. Reason is the slave of passion. Political life moves on narrative, emotions, scandal, anger, hope and faith, on irrational or at least sub-rational feelings that can be channeled but never destroyed by reason. Sociologist Max Weber demonstrated more than a century ago, politics does not, and cannot, operate on facts alone. Politics depends on values and requires judgment. Political life is not a utilitarian equation, nor should we want it to be.”
Max: Yeah, and this is really what raises my hackles about Rufo here. On the one hand, it seems like he’s governed continuously by this failure of imagination. And that is, I can’t imagine anything but politics done harder, and stronger, and meaner, against the other side to create value or to bring about a better world. I think that is a terrible hubristic error and it’s going to cause matters to escalate. But I also don’t hear in any of this, he’s all about strategy. He’s all about feelings and says being reasonable anymore is outmoded. If we just go back and read Max Weber, then we would know that.
But here’s the problem. That’s the boy Pharaoh talking. He just wants to throw his weight around. He just wants to go blah, blah, blah, values blah, blah, blah virtues and eudemonia here and there, but he doesn’t really want to give us a way to put our finger on what he wants. And notice not in any part of this essay does he ever mention morality or the good. This suggests to me that he’s more Machiavellian than Aristotelian.
Jim: An interesting read. Now here is, he makes another big turn right here. “Finally, the conservative establishment has appealed to the free marketplace of ideas, and the belief that the invisible hand will rectify cultural and political problems organically.”
Max: Now, I want your listeners to consider that these are quotations, right? He says, quote, “Free marketplace of ideas”, unquote. And the, quote, “Invisible hand”, unquote. Now these are what we call in the editing business, scare quotes. Which means nobody said it, he’s just sort of trying to suggest that people frequently say this. What I want to argue here is that no, he has made a conflation and is using the scare quotes to give people the impression that this is what people actually think. Yes, people are on the one hand, committed to the idea of free speech, the spirit and the letter. There’s John Stewart Mill’s free speech, which is we should be tolerant of other people’s speech acts even when they’re unpleasant. And then of course, the letter, which is the US Constitution, the first amendment. That Millian idea of speech toleration creates a marketplace of ideas in a condition of relatively free speech in a First Amendment sense.
It doesn’t mean that you have to let assholes in your house to tell you that you’re some unspeakable person. It means that you should tolerate other perspectives to the extent possible. And that’s a good thing. We don’t want to get rid of the spirit of Mill’s free speech. Nor do we want to get rid of the First Amendment. And that will create a marketplace of ideas, and the marketplace of ideas might tell you that you’re wrong. Just like I’m using my speech right now to tell him that he might be wrong, and maybe he’ll read it or maybe someone who was a Rufo fan will read it and reflect that, “Hey, maybe he’s taken us too far afield.” I don’t want to get too meta, back to the other.
The other part of the conflation is the invisible hand, and he’s conflating this idea that somehow that reason and good argumentation is just going to move society in the right direction. Nobody believes this anymore, not even conservatives, and certainly not people who are into heterodox education. We know that all of this is Darwinian. We know that it’s information warfare and we’re all in it. I just think that his characterization here is wrong, and I certainly don’t like that he’s blaming non-existent people for thinking this when really nobody does.
Jim: Well I also must say that I knee-jerk against his putting down the idea of the free market of ideas. The one philosophy book I keep in my working office is Popper’s, “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, where he makes an incredibly strong argument that a society that is open, essentially a marketplace of ideas, over the long haul will be stronger and more vibrant than any attempt to produce a single voice or an authoritarian perspective on what is or is not allowed with respect to discourse. And that would be a very bad move if one of our political parties came to reject the idea of an open society.
Max: Indeed. I mean, we can think about just reflecting on COVID for this rush to embrace “The Science” trademark, and what the science says and the public health establishment as being giving us like manna from heaven, the truth about the science. And this was disastrous as they began to censor other people. This is fresh in our memories, but he sort of seems to think that this is no longer useful or good. The Popperian model here is perfectly apt. We want competition, that’s all.
Jim: Okay, now I’m going to read two pieces together, which is again, kind of reinforcing some of the things we talked about before. “The formation of culture does not proceed like the productions of cars and cannot be conceived the same way. The chief vectors for the transmission of values; the public schools, the public university, and the state, are not marketplaces at all. They’re government run monopolies. In truth, the hand that moves cultures not an invisible hand, but an iron hand clad in velvet, that is political force. The adoption of these myths has rendered the right ineffective to their point of cementing as opposed to contesting the status quo of leftist hegemony. The radical left ruthlessly advances through the institutions, and the right meekly ratifies each encroachment under the rubric of neutrality. In view of the social and cultural wreckage, this dynamic has wrought, it is not merely a matter of preference, but a matter of urgency to break it. To do this, a new approach is required.”
Max: Yes, yes. So these government run monopolies. He doesn’t want to dismantle them. That would be a true revolutionary. Instead, he wants to be a reactionary. He wants Team Red with its own velvet glove to govern these state run or government run monopolies, right? With a velvet glove, with power, with political force.
Jim: Yep. And he does not disavow the iron hand clad in the velvet glove. He just wants it to be his hand, right?
Max: That’s right. That’s why his passing reference to principles, limited government, and rightful ends rings really hollow to me.
Jim: All right, let’s continue into your second essay. “The new right activism must focus its efforts on three domains, language, institutions, and ends. As the gospels state, in the beginning was the word, and this is true also in politics. Modern political movements have always started with writing; with pamphlets, manifestos, and other publications. The new right has already generated a high degree of innovation in this respect, spread across a growing network of publications, podcast, literature, and visual arts. The point is not only to shape the meta discourse as a matter of general culture, but to attack the political discourse directly on individual issues. In other words, to engage in agitprop.”
Max: Yeah, I agree with him on this. Only I would replace the new right with the gray tribe. In other words, those who aren’t into this idea of coercive monopolies controlling everything or worse, coercive monopolies in bed with corporate monopolies, or oligopolies, in collusion. No, we don’t want these anymore. And the gray tribe says, “Why should I care about your pamphleteering, your manifestos, or other publications, if all you’re going to do is replace those authoritarians with a new set of authoritarians? No thanks.”
Jim: Exactly. That’d be my take. If there’s going to be an open market for gray tribe, red tribe and blue tribe, great! As long as the plan isn’t for any of the tribes to essentially impose their wills on the others. That’s a violation of good old 18th and 19th central liberalism. He goes even further. “Agitprop does not mean sacrificing the truth, but rather channeling the truth towards victory. Postmodernist theories reduced politics to language games may have overstated the case, but they were right in one respect; language is the operative element of human culture. To change of language means to change society. In law, arts, rhetoric, or common speech, the right must build a new vocabulary to overcome the regime’s euphemistic rule, which enacts abusive power through use of abuse of language. The point is to replace contemporary ideological language with new persuasive language that points towards clear principles.”
Max: So, oh, there’s so much in here. And so much in here I didn’t even write about in response. And one of those things is just look at what he’s doing in this essay. He’s doing exactly what he says that others should do, which is to change the language. Right down to changing the meaning of words. The pursuit of eudemonia, for example, instead of the pursuit of happiness. It’s a subtle change, but it’s important. And of course, consider the things he omits. He doesn’t have any clear principles. His persuasive language is not towards neither truth nor clear principles. It is all about strategy, tactics, and that long march. That Gramscian battle tactics.
So it’s interesting and maybe he’s like, “Well, I didn’t have time to talk about my principles in this. I’m going to stay meta, and really talk about the landscape.” Okay, but somewhere you’ve got to rally the troops around a set of principles, around a moral core, or otherwise all you’re doing is stirring up the rabble for a fight. Only to use them as an instrument to your ends, which seem to be power.
Jim: True. And I will agree with him though that the left has been pretty successful at twisting language, considering how the word equity is used, right?
Max: Oh, yeah.
Jim: You look up the word equity in the dictionary, it’s a fine word. It means being treated fairly basically. But now it means thumbs on the scales to produce a doctrinaire outcome as prescribed by a small number of radical theorists. And how the hell did that happen? That was a very clever word game done by, I don’t think of wokies as actually the left, which is odd, because there’s relatively little to do with the means of production or how we distribute the surplus of society. It’s some other weird thing that has somehow gotten stapled onto the progressive left. But the two are now kind of all fused together in this weird and confusing mess. So he does have a point there, I guess.
Max: He definitely has a point, and that’s what’s so frustrating about this. Just when you think you can get your hooks into something important, or something vital, or something principled, it just vaporizes.
Jim: “Institutions are where the word becomes flesh. The men who shape the discourse must understand that above them stand the statesmen. Men of practical affairs who govern, legislate and rule.” Yikes.
Max: Oh, I didn’t realize that my purpose as a pamphleteer, and I, by the way, do consider myself one Jim, because I mean that’s why I love to come on your show, talk about my books, do all the things, I’m writing pamphlets. Tom Payne and Tom Jefferson, both pamphleteers, really did shape the world, but they were renaissance men. They were not boy Pharaohs and they were not pillar saints, they were a mix of the two. They understood that what they were doing as pamphleteers was changing the world in some sort of emancipatory fashion.
What we’ve got here is a call to just serve the men who shaped the discourse. I mean, if this isn’t fascist as hell, I don’t know what is. And people who read my blog got pissed off at me, I guess they’re big Rufo fans and they’re like, “I don’t think you can read between the lines.” But I see this, “Men who shape the discourse”, are shaping it on behalf of these men of practical affairs. He’s basically saying, “Hey man, I’m a hatchet man for Ron DeSantis, who gets done.” And maybe he does, but again, to what ends? Exodus acta probat; the ends justify the means. No, thank you.
Jim: Right. “In the end, the work of politics is the work of practical statesmanship.” Bet our good old buddy Machiavelli would agree with that. “Now, those who ignore this reality by appealing to abstract principles always limit their effectiveness. When Thomas Payne wrote the American Crisis, he felt the breath of British soldiers at his neck. He understood that the revolution had to defeat enemies on the battlefield, and he looked to General Washington as the only man who could do it.”
Max: Yeah, I mean, look, that’s a stirring passage. I hope people can see through it. Especially this bit about appeal to abstract principles. Practical statesmanship is enabled and ennobled to the sense that politics isn’t just straight up shitty and corrupt.
Jim: Or just pure power.
Max: Or just pure power, is done so by appeal to abstract principles. Right? There are two forces in the world that matter; persuasion and coercion. If you can’t appeal to abstract principles ever, and only appeal to practical statesmanship, then you are truly Machiavellian. I mean, he mentions Jefferson as if, or Tom Payne, but let’s take Jefferson. I mean these ideals that were instantiated in that document are something to which people return as secular scripture to this day. The idea of deriving their just power from the consent of the governed. All men are created equal, with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The right of people to alter or abolish government that isn’t working for them. These are all abstract concepts. They’re not instantiated necessarily here by practical statesmanship. They had to be instantiated by revolution back in 1776, so I don’t trust him. I’m seeing that velvet glove.
Jim: Again, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but the idea of a general kind of sounds a little bit like Curtis Yarvin and the need for a Caesar.
Max: Absolutely. Well said.
Jim: “In our time, some conservatives believe that is enough to lay claim to individual rights and limited government as a substitute for managing the state. I, too, support individual rights and limited government.” So he does cut back. “But the decisive political question concerns securing those rights. Who will do so? And even if it is limited, what is the proper role of government? These are the issues which are ultimately at stake.”
Max: Ooh yeah, that’s an awful big but, right? If he really thinks there’s no substitute for managing the state, and I consider that a euphemism. It’s really managing the timid herds of the people with redistributed tax money, the feedstock, and the threat of violence, the sticks and the carrots. I mean, if you think that managing the state is the only way to support individual rights and limited government, I say you’re either a fool or a despot. And I don’t agree with that. I think that’s way too narrow and way too authoritarian. And I don’t trust that someone who has already said he wants to slip on the velvet glove is really going to care that much about my individual rights, or about limited government. Because managing the state is contradictory to the idea of limiting government.
Jim: And here he gets a little stronger. “The activists must begin with status quo reality. The institutions which today shape public and private life will exist for the foreseeable future. The only question is who will lead them, and by which set of values? The new right must summon the self-confidence to say, ‘We will, by our values.'”
Max: I mean, I think that speaks for itself. There is no alternative. The foreseeable future is the fudge phrase there. You’re saying, “Yeah, maybe we can imagine a day when all of these bloated institutions, these coercive state institutions, from K-12, and higher education, and grad school aren’t commandeered by anyone at the public teat using that coercive apparatus. But these days, that’s all we’ve got. That’s all we can do. So you’re just going to have to suck it up, buttercup.”
And I think that that failure of imagination is going to keep really innovative thinking about reform, something like a University of Austin, or even for God’s sake, do we need to build another library? Do we really need more sages on the stage in the era of the internet? Artificial intelligence? I know those have their risks. I know that we might raise the hackles of Daniel Schmachtenberger if we talk about AI as being a means to help educate people through Socratic practice. But it’s possible. And I think this idea that, not only that, we’ve just got to keep the institutions we have as expensive, bloated, and corrupt as they are, and just install new leaders, is not only wrongheaded, but dangerous.
Jim: Interesting. We’ve talked through about 80% of it. For those who want to get to the rest of it, go read Max’s great two essays, which will be up at the episode page at JimRuttShow.com. So let’s back up a little bit. Take the 50,000-foot view. What do you really think is going on here? What’s this all about?
Max: Yeah, let me just add one more point. I used an example here toward the end of the second essay of a fellow named Bob Luddy, who started a series of schools in North Carolina called Thales Academy. These are low cost private schools, super affordable. And I think 20% of them have scholarships for people who are of little means. So they really do make an effort not only to cross-subsidize poor people so that they can get quality education, they are taking over down there. It’s private education, and it’s growing and growing and growing like a fungus. You don’t need to march through the institutions to create innovations like this. But if we had thought about these “men of practical statesmanship” or whatever he was talking about, that that’s what we need to do. We need to do activism before we become practical statesmen to take over the institutions, such as the left has done, then the Bob Luddys of the world wouldn’t have created this. They would be fighting curricular battles in these institutions. They would be engaging in tit-for-tat warfare.
And what I really want to get out of this with my critique is, think outside of the partisan box, because you are going to be divided and conquered with this kind of thinking. And that moves us to the next part of your question, Jim, which is what do I think is really going on here? What I think is really going on here is he is missing the point about real power. When I talked earlier about Mommy Money and Papa Power in bed together, and what comes out of that coital bed, what kind of monster comes out of that? That is some serious power. And it is way more than politicos and politicians who are their supplicants and handmaidens. I mean, these people, the money and the power behind the scenes on some of this stuff, is not really left or right, is authoritarian versus liberal.
And so he is just, I think what he’s doing is he’s either playing on the wrong axis, or he’s trying to play 5D chess and he realizes that, and maybe he thinks that by taking over these institutions, he’s going to be able to combat the very, very powerful. Or on the other hand, he’s a Machiavellian and he wants to join them, and it’s going to take the partisan means to do so. I’m not so sure, that doesn’t sound right to me. It doesn’t sound strategically all that wise. I think his stratagem is that he really believes in this Manichaean world of left and right, and that it’s equal and opposite force, and only equal and opposite force. But that’s wrong. There’s a lot that’s going on in this unholy alliance between corporations and governments that is the real enemy. And if he doesn’t recognize, that we’re going to go down. The managerial state is growing and growing fast, and Rufo is missing it. He’s missing the plot.
Jim: Yep. My take on it is that, at one level, I do resonate with a lot of what he says with respect to his attack on the neo-racism of the far wokies. And when he was just talking about that, I would’ve counted myself as a Rufo fan. But now that he’s laying it out, that he is aligned with the new right. And to my mind that is at least neighboring and probably including the Christian nationalists, and he’s talking about velvet fists, and we are going to just run them out of town and be them but with our values. I got to say my residence with Rufo is moving quite radically the other way. And to your point, he and the hyper polarized Team Red, Team Blue, is missing the obvious alternative, which is a return to real liberty.
And whether it’s probably not Big Al Libertarianism, but it’s at least an attitude of a marketplace for ideas. A breaking of the corrupt partnership between big corporations and government, a reduction of taxes to a level that’s not confiscatory, et cetera. So there is an alternative between authoritarian right and quasi-authoritarian left, and possible even totalitarian left someday. And God damn it, I hope the American people have the intestinal fortitude to go back and read their founding documents, and step away from these two bad alternatives, and back towards real American values.
Max: That is beautifully said. I know I sound really old school, but when I hear something like that, that is exactly right. And it seems like for a moment that’s what he is heading towards. He sort of pays lip service to that. But I also see that he is being the postmodern critical theorist that he hates, in this essay. And in reading between the lines, I’m very suspicious. I think we need a secular grade awakening again, a re-enlivening of the founding principles. And you’re right, it doesn’t need to be pure libertarianism. It can be a peaceful concord whereby we have more federalism, more states’ rights, and states sort of put together their own conceptions of the good, or counties even, put together their own conceptions of the good. And we can sort of exercise our exodology as Alexander Bard would put it, and go to the places that most closely comport with our conceptions of the good. These are good old-fashioned liberal values of pluralism, and they can be reanimated and put on technological steroids, frankly. But Rufo misses it, and I think he does it on purpose.
Jim: Yep. I want to thank you, Max. Reading these articles really made me think through what these guys are doing. And I would say opened my eyes a little bit. And anyone who really wants to do an intellectually reasonable dive into this New Right phenomenon, I strongly suggest reading Max’s essays and thinking it through with him, and in your own minds. So with that, Max, I want to thank you for yet another interesting Jim Rutt Show episode.
Max: It was my pleasure, Jim. Thanks so much.