A Brief History of Social Justice – by Curtis Yarvin
The following text is an excerpt from Curtis Yarvin’s Gray Mirror article titled ‘Persuasion and the Mensheviks‘. The substack will soon be turned into a book, ‘The Gray Mirror of the Nihilist Prince’. In this particular chapter, Yarvin embarks on an inverted thought experiment. What if we were to compare our current year status quo with that of tsarist Russia? The hegemonic social justice ideology is the tsarist autocracy; the Mensheviks are the moderate opposition to the status quo: the intellectual dark web, the Jordan Petersons, Ben Shapiros and Dave Rubins, speaking truth to power, labouring under the illusion that only the latest developments on the far left are unacceptable, that the political centre held admirably before 2012 and all we have to do is call out ‘cancel culture’ and normalcy will return. The Bolsheviks, in Yarvin’s inversion, are blackpilled disidents who see the historical parallax and thus realise the futility of engaging in the culture war, of accusing the establishment left of unfairness, when this very freedom to re-write the rules indicates we are dealing with a merciless sovereign power. Enter Moldbug:
“Is it “cancel culture”? “Wokism”? The “successor ideology”? Successor to what? Maybe we should just […] drop the “successor,” and just say the ideology.
We intuitively sense that there’s something pathological about this labeling chaos—some kind of forcefield impeding our ability to think clearly. Our suspicions grow when we look backward. Fading out into historical obscurity, we see a long trail of failed labels which all clearly mean the same thing—bones outside the dragon’s cave.
Put on some 90s techno tracks and ask: is “cancel culture” the same thing as “political correctness?” Spin some Skrillex and ask: what’s the difference between a “wokeist” and an “SJW?” But no cool person would say “PC” or “SJW” non-ironically in 2020.
While every case is different, the classic lifecycle of one of these labels is: first, it is used sincerely by the movement; second, it is noticed by the enemies of the movement, and used as a label for the movement; third, that label is noticed by the movement, which sheds it and instead stigmatizes the enemies who use it; fourth, the movement wins, and its pathetic, beaten enemies drop their now broken and useless weapon. […]
What is this snake that keeps dropping its skin? Of course, power hates to be named. Having one name is next door to having one neck. Power really hates to have one neck.
Here is why Mensheviks keep renaming it: to cling to a happy illusion. The happy illusion is that this problem is a new phenomenon. And when we give it a new name, we imply—in a very clever Orwellian fashion—that it is a new thing. If it is not in fact a new thing, we give one thing two names—and step right in front of Occam’s razor.
If it is a new thing, it must be a small thing. A new tree is a small tree. A small tree can be removed with a penknife or small hatchet, which is why we keep seeing these small and superficial solutions from the Menshevik side of the house. But if it is an old tree? How can we trace the lifecycle of a tradition that might be two hundred years old? And—what would it take to cut it down? But I guess we already talked about that.
Here is another way to trace a tradition. Rather than its name, which it is always trying to wriggle out of, trace its jargon. Ideally an indicator term is both meaningless and narcissistic. If the term is meaningless, it is unlikely to be used in an unrelated way. If it is self-complimentary, its enemies are unlikely to pick it up and use it as a cudgel. So it will not go through the same gyrations as “PC.”
A brief history of social justice
A good indicator for the “successor ideology,” is good old social justice. As a phrase in English, social justice has no particular literal meaning. But it sounds really good, so it never goes out of style.
These qualities make it perfect for quantitative history—usually a marginal technique, but sometimes informative. Google has counted the frequency of words and phrases by publication date in all English-language books. Here are two indicator phrases, social justice and racism:
Anyone seeing this graph, knowing nothing about the labels, and applying Occam’s razor, would conclude that: both these curves represent one movement; since 1900, this movement has been increasing steadily in importance; and the blue curve is more fundamental than the red curve, since racism somehow did not even exist until 1935.
If you doubt this default, you must postulate that the red and/or blue curves are in fact sums of two or more separate movements, whose dromedary-shaped popularity curves intersect smoothly to produce these smooth and monotonic hills. I can’t even start to imagine what these camels might be, so you probably can’t either. In fact the meanings in context of these codewords have remained remarkably constant across their lives.
What makes “cancel culture” look like a new problem is simply that the movement driving these curves has reached new levels of dominance which can, like Caligula appointing his horse to the Senate, enable new levels of wild, brazen state sadism. It’s a natural error. Any observer can mistake a threshold for an invention.
Dominance always results in aggressive humiliation. Flexing feels so good that there is always someone who will fail to resist it. There is no point in arguing for dominance without aggression. It is like arguing away crime. The love of power is inherent in the human heart. The way to eliminate aggression is to strictly restrict dominance. Power itself is the disease—this sadistic flexing, which is “cancel culture,” is just a symptom.
“Cancel culture” comes with the blue curve. Which is not a few years old, as novelties like “cancel culture” or “successor ideology” imply—but at least a century old, as this graph shows. (Not that “cancelling” is itself a new phenomenon—ask John dos Passos, Robinson Jeffers, or Charles Beard.)
At least a century—because even in 1900, the blue is not at zero. Computer, enhance:
With some dromedary action around mid-century, the social justice curve starts its 20C climb during the Hayes administration—correlating its timeline to the ascendancy of the Liberal Republican or Mugwump faction from New England. If we lump in that hump in the 1860s, the most plausible correlation is the Radical Republicans, also from New England. Hm. (If Democrats are the real racists, Republicans are the real SJWs.)
So, for the last 150 years, this gnomic phrase has been used, by one single continuous culture and doctrine, to mean one single thing. Without trying to name the tradition—obviously an impossible feat, given all those heaps of bones outside the dragon’s cave—what is that thing? What does social justice actually mean?
Political ethics of the ideology
The word social cannot be superfluous—though in context the prefix can be implied. When we think simply of justice, we just think of efficient execution of the law: legal justice. Intuitively, these do not seem like the same sets. They are not.
It therefore seems that there are actions which are legally just but not socially just; and also actions which are socially just, but not legally just. The latter set is especially of interest: it is literally a definition of justified crimes.
We find ourselves all the way back to a subject we covered earlier: power above law. The idea of social justice is no more than a democratization of the Schmittian exception. If tracing it back to 1850 is tracing it far enough, let’s trace it to William H. Seward’s great “higher law” speech—which does not use the phrase, but does use the concept.
Seward (later known for buying Alaska; at the time, the North’s top radical statesman) tells the Senate that “there is a higher law than the Constitution.” This is the law of God—whose voice he, Senator Seward, has heard. The Constitution does say that the North is required to return fleeing slaves. But God tells the Senator that slavery is bad and should not be allowed, so they just, like, won’t.
The reader in 2020 may be with God and Senator Seward on this one. Not for nothing did one historian call the Civil War the war of the Prophets against the Law. However strongly you may side with the Prophets, though, helping slaves escape is one thing. Getting random strangers fired for their Twitter takes is another.
Here again we see the difference between surgery and butchery. For all their faults, both Lincoln and Lenin concur on the surgical interpretation of the exception. Power above law is war. It is a legal singularity. It is to be avoided assiduously until it can no longer be avoided. At that point it must be used decisively to establish a new peace, in which the pure rule of law can be restored.
This doctrine of social justice (Lenin’s “infantile disorder”) is quite different. It is not at all a doctrine of emergency prerogative—a single sharp blade above the law, wielded in a single operation, by a capable surgeon, with a real plan, to cure a real cancer. It is the opposite of surgery in every way—except that it is sharp and draws blood.
Social justice is a doctrine of universal prerogative. It lets everyone feel above the law, all the time. It points inexorably to the law of the prison-yard: anyone can have a shank, and shank you. Grab a shank and shank him first. This is the rule of Auden’s Shield of Achilles— in so many ways, the bleak political hellscape of the 1900s:
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone….
The cause of “cancel culture” is that everyone feels they can do anything, if they are doing it for a good reason. Philosophers refer to this as “consequential” rather than “deontological” ethics. Deontology means doing your duty; consequentialism means deciding for yourself what is right or wrong.
Deontological ethics is the perspective of a law-abiding citizen. Consequential ethics is the perspective of a god, a king, or at least a superhero. It is also the perspective of a looter, a traitor, or a sociopath. It is the perspective of power above law. It converges on Aleister Crowley’s formula: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the the law. And of course it was the great ethical revelation of the 1900s, and even now reigns supreme.
When society adopts a consequential perspective, it asks everyone to see themselves as superheroes above the law. Why should we be surprised when these superheroes gang up to fight evil? No society ever believed in mob justice more thoroughly than ours. And what else could the meaning of social justice be? Where do the two differ? What is “cancel culture” but the breakdown of mere rules and the apotheosis of naked power?
Here is our final parallax view of the ideology. From one perspective, it is a recipe for giving everyone the power to matter, change the world and do good. From a a second perspective, it is a recipe for letting everyone feel like a god or a king. From a third, it is a recipe for making everyone into a criminal, a bully, a quisling or a snitch.”
Read the rest of the article on Yarvin’s substack.