Tactics for Embattled Minorities
I will injure my “based,” dissident bona fides at the outset and confess that I had no idea who Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug) was until I saw him on Tucker Today last year, and then in that Vanity Fair write up on the National Conservatism conference. I was intrigued, probably because within a few minutes of listening to his oft-times meandering diatribe on Tucker’s daytime set, I identified in Yarvin—not that it is veiled—an affinity for pre- or early-modern political thought. Of course, pre-modern political theory is not a unified thing. Any aversion to Yarvin’s self-professedly materialist, ironical, and pseudo-nihilist tendencies I possess is the same that Giovanni Botero (1544-1617) and others had to Machiavelli in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The specula principum literature was not invented by early sixteenth century Italians, nor exhausted thereby—John Salisbury’s Policraticus (1159) and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno (1260), to name just two, are exemplars of the tradition that predate Niccolò.
The lack of consideration for transcendent truths in Yarvin would likely exercise any Christian, or even the casual, founding-era deistic adherent to bare Providence. Though, to be fair, Moldbug has registered a provisional endorsement of the theological. (For what it’s worth, he’s hung out with Thomist podcasters.) Preliminary objections notwithstanding, there is undeniably something simultaneously compelling, subversive, and alarming in the inexhaustible reams of his musings at his former blog, now transported to his Gray Mirror substack.
The recent Moldbug drop, inspired by the Dobbs decision, instigated alarm once again on the religious right. In a Trumpian vein, Yarvin is occupied with winning; in a decidedly non-Trumpian vein, he is interested in strategy. His piece seems to have been taken as an unqualified assault on the overturn of Roe even though Yarvin has denounced abortion, at least in general terms. However, the backlash against Yarvin misses what matters most: the strategic point.
In the piece, Tolkein’s hobbits and elves serve as Yarvin’s characters. The two races are more or less antagonistic, if not directly, then in terms of their fundamental incompatibility of lifestyle. The Shire is not Lothlorien. The hobbits (conservative, regular folk) prefer a plain existence of family life and simple recreation. The more sophisticated tastes of the elves (the elites) do not jive with hobbit tendencies (who “just want to grill”). And yet, the two find themselves occupying the same Middle Earth. (“The problem is that elves do not want to be ruled by hobbits, and hobbits do not want to rule elves.”)
The hobbit-elf dichotomy is an updated version of Yarvin’s lion-buffalo analogy. It’s simple: the best thing for a prey species like the buffalo to do is to not act like a lion (a predator species). The buffalo should do all it can to render itself difficult prey. This entails not antagonizing the lion and not confusing one’s buffalo self for a lion. The buffalo and hobbit alike must remember that they are the underdog.
Wrapped up in this picture is Yarvin’s belief that progressives operate not so much out of malice, but out of predatory instinct, which coincides with his “Cathedral” theory of the deep state, viz., that it is not a cabal that runs the regime but rather that literally no one does; it is self-perpetuating oligarchical rot. The elves believe themselves to be doing the non-denominational, non-sectarian, gender-neutral Lord’s work for the good of society. When challenged, therefore, they feel oppressed and lash out with even greater fury.
To boot, and paradoxically, the occasional hobbit victory, advises Moldbug, may weaken the Shire’s position because it frustrates a “fifth column” of “dark elves” who live among them and share the basic cultural proclivities of their elven brethren, but are otherwise sympathetic to the hobbits. A fifth column, of course, is a group that is imbedded in the upper echelons of society but, to some extent, works to undermine the same in cooperation with external rivals. Dark elves, in this way, are at least provisional allies (such as old-school liberals like Douglas Murray, Dave Rubin, and Bari Weiss). In this case, Yarvin means elites that might want to maintain the pre-Dobbs status quo but otherwise operate with a live-and-let-live mentality. Maybe they are horrified by the social contagion of transgenderism among grade schoolers. Or, perhaps, they oppose the onslaught of woke ideology in K-12 curriculum. They are not existentially oppressed by the idea that conservatives in flyover country are raising their children in traditional, Christian fashion, or that Jewish enclaves in metro areas are doing the same.
Here, part of Yarvin’s point also is that hobbits do not like to, and are not (at present) equipped to, wield power. If for no other reason this is simply because hobbits are busy living their ordinary lives. They do not care about amassing political power. Accordingly, they cannot afford to annoy those power-wielding that possess sympathy for them. But the more basic idea is that an embattled faction should not needlessly poke at its enemy. It cannot afford pyrrhic victories. It must choose carefully and then seize its moment forcefully. Victory must be definitive, not piecemeal.
By Yarvin’s lights, a defensive yet aggressive culture war posture does not serve hobbits well at all. Things like the abolition of abortion, then, are tactically ill-advised because they antagonize all elites, thereby instigating unified backlash from all elites. The point:
Needless to say, Dobbs v. Jackson—the American Brexit, the legitimate pinnacle of what long seemed an utterly quixotic political goal—is the absolute opposite of a victory in this elven arena of memetic dominance.
Instead—by asserting power over the physical bodies of elves, who are still elves even if they happen to live in a hobbit state—Dobbs reminds them of what is most important in politics: the friend-enemy distinction.
In other words, if their goal is the preservation of a particular lifestyle, conservatives should never intentionally draw fire, much less if they ostensibly have friends on the other side, at least not until hobbits amass sufficient power to bring down the whole system that hates them.
Aaron Renn has expressed something akin to Yarvin: conservative Christians need to realize that they are now a moral minority and act accordingly. Michael Anton has advised similar things: being too openly reactionary is usually counterproductive. Charging an armed bunker will probably get you killed. Strategy over reflex, always.
One need not totally buy into Yarvin’s strained Tolkien analogy to glean a core strategic lesson: that minorities and dissidents must generate breathing room for themselves in which they can build and gain a surer footing from which they can later strike. As a prey species, it is ill-advised to contest the enemy at every conceivable turn, especially at close range.
A caveat is necessary here. Yarvin’s paradigm affords no credence to transcendentals, as stated already. There are times, contra Moldbug, that embracing a temporal loss is necessary for achievement of an eternal, moral win. The defeat of an unjust law constitutes such a moment. Such is undoubtedly the case with the overturn of Roe, come what may. This is especially so if one conceives of nations as western, Christian pre-moderns did, that is, in collective, covenantal relation to God and, therefore, accountable to a higher law. Yarvin’s Dobbs-centered thesis, then, falls flat for us hobbits—at least us hobbits that aspire to adventure beyond grilling. Typical dark elf stuff.
With the necessary qualifications now registered, Moldbug’s chiding should not be so summarily dismissed. If (excepting the odd Dobbs moment when morality trumps strategy) we want to win the battle for our nation’s soul, that is. Indeed, the first American founders exhibit a similar wisdom. I am speaking, of course, of the New England Puritans. We would not be here without them, and they would not have been here had they not understood a version of the strategery outlined by Gray Mirror.
Colloquial Puritan narratives will not do. In this instance, harvesting guidance from New England—and, at least, partial corroboration of Yarvin’s concerns—requires recalibrating the American mind vis-a-vis the Puritan project, which was fundamentally socio-political and not a harbinger of liberalism.
Understanding Puritan New England as a strategic withdrawal by an embattled minority for the purpose of consolidation and the generation of political power yields more wisdom for us than does the tired, Whiggish triumphalist narratives peddled by 20th century progressives. Allow me to explain.
As Perry Miller has shown, a prerequisite to understanding seventeenth century New England is understanding political thought prior to the rise of late-eighteenth century political liberalism. In particular it requires moving past the (ostensible) segregation of spiritual and political life, as well as understanding the difference between absolutist conceptions of religious liberty over and against the begrudging tolerationism that marked prior periods.
The New England colonies—whether Boston, Salem, or New Haven—are not rightly understood as theocratic, as George Haskins has shown. But neither were they harbingers of liberalism. They came to establish an order in their own image. That is, in John Winthrop’s (1587-1649) words, “a due forme of Government both ciuill and ecclesiasticall.” This “forme” was highly communal, aristocratic, and illiberal.
Liberty for all was decidedly not their motto. Samuel Willard (1640-1707), a leading clergyman of Boston’s Third Church, recounted that the business of the “first Planters” was not libertinism but “to settle, and (as much as in them lay) secure Religion to Posterity, according to the way which they believed was of God.” Likewise, Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652), the lawyer-clergyman author of The Simple Cobbler of Agawam (1646), instructed religious minorities that they had all the religious liberty in the world to go elsewhere. (Curious also is that Ward’s Body of Liberties (1641) is often credited with inspiring a tradition of democratic liberty in America, while Ward himself was an avowed aristocrat—not a particularly benevolent one.) This was not a Jeffersonian people.
“They would have expected laissez faire to result in a reign of rapine and horror,” says Miller. Rather, church and state alike were formative (i.e., coercive) institutions. And as the Cambridge Platform (1648) later made clear, the church and state were coordinate powers offering mutual assistance to one another. Indeed, the Puritans were not so far away from what Andrew Willard Jones has described in thirteenth century France.
Part of the reason most of the passengers of Winthrop’s fleet had emigrated from East Anglia is because the ability to subvert and reform preexisting structures and power dynamics at home—a prerequisite for enacting their own vision for English society—had proven futile under the Stuart-Laud regime. Winthrop, in particular, realized he could double his impact by removing himself from England.
There were two reasons for this: the English church seemed non-responsive to direct reformist efforts. Nonconformists, increasingly marginalized, were bleeding political power. Not a recipe for success.
What the Puritans needed was breathing room, and the Crown was only too eager at the time to grant patents for settlement in the new world. It was so eager to do so, in fact, that someone forgot to designate London as the headquarters of the New England Company. An ocean away, the Puritan corporation that founded Massachusetts gained a then unprecedented level of colonial autonomy which they enjoyed for over sixty years.
In this context, Miller rightly describes New England as a sort of flank attack on the old country. Francis Bremer has shown that the New England settlers remained connected to home affairs and never abandoned their hope of reforming the institutions from whence they fled. They foresaw a shift in political, which is also to say religious, winds in England and endeavored to model an alternative polity, expanding the range of options to be considered when the time came—as it would in the 1640s and 1650s. At some point, the new might envelope and supplant the old. Decades of toiling under the new dynasty of suspected Papists had yielded only suffering. Any foreseeable shake-up would require political power which, at the time, nonconformists simply did not possess. Waiting in the wings for more opportune moments was preferable.
The Puritans of the Bay, unlike prior colonies like Jamestown or any of the fishing ventures that dotted the northern coast, were the first politically self-conscious (and capable) settlers. They came to live the way they wanted to, but they possessed no allergy to power, nor ineptitude in employing it. New England in 1630 was no longer a purely economic enterprise in service of New World, inc. Yet they simultaneously understood the limits of their power even once they had generated some space to order their society as they pleased. If they wanted to exercise colonial dominion according to their own reformist intentions, then they could not make a scene, as it were. John Fiske aptly characterizes the typical New Englander on this point:
Much as he loved self-government, he would never have been so swift to detect and so stubborn to resist every slightest encroachment on the part of the crown had not the loss of self-government involved the imminent danger that the ark of the Lord might be abandoned to the worshippers of Dagon.
Splashing about too much might distract the monarch from water-war with the Dutch or from massacring more Irish. Distractions were good. A monster was not to be found lurking around every corner.
A low profile was good insofar as it afforded more time to grill and also the chance to strategically select moments of conflict. So long as the Stuarts were only vaguely aware of what was going on across the pond the Puritans possessed operational cover. Meanwhile their churches and families flourished. Timothy Breen and Stephen Foster have shown that New England enjoyed an unprecedented level of social cohesion and tranquility at the time. Real threats of disruption to the project were predominantly external, apart from the occasional Antinomian dust up.
This entailed, inter alia, not openly subverting the laws of England, as the Charter of 1629 directed, or neglect of the “king’s justice.” Which, in turn, required that Hobbiton not get too zealous, flamboyant, or explicit in what they were doing (i.e., rolling out a parallel society). This is why Winthrop, as Edmund Morgan recounts, initially opposed committing the particulars of Massachusetts law to paper. Such an act would not only hamper magisterial discretion but also clear some of the protective fog surrounding the Bay, a fog which dissipated even more when exaggerated tales of Puritan intolerance cropped up in London.
When the Protectorate of the Interregnum collapsed and the Stuarts were restored, the New Englanders popped back up on the royal radar, especially as regicides fled to America. For a decade thereafter, whispers of legal violations by Massachusetts and her neighbors trickled through Whitehall. Tensions began to mount in 1665 when a compliance review by a royal commission received a less than warm welcome. Navigation laws had been wantonly skirted for years and everyone knew it. Foreign ships traded directly with Boston, circumventing English port duties. London merchants didn’t like that. Massachusetts had even circulated their own pine-tree shillings as currency and land was being distributed at unsatisfactory rates to Congregationalists.
Charles II revoked the original charter in 1684 and consolidated New England under a single governor. Ostensibly the harsh treatment of Quakers was the impetus for this move. In reality, a pause in conflict with the Dutch had allowed Sauron (Charles II) to cast his fiery gaze upon the Shire.
Ingratiating religious minorities to himself over and against the more unified Presbyterians and Congregationalists was an added bonus. The Lords of Trade emissary, Edward Randolph, fed the narrative of persecution in his reports, saying that the New Englanders had “murdered some English Quakers because of their religious beliefs.”
Of course, it was not private conviction for which the Quakers were executed, but their insistence on subversive behavior toward the leaders of church and state alike, their disruptive demonstrations and preaching of heterodoxy in public, and, finally, their refusal to abide by multiple warnings, banishments, and deportations. As Fiske points out in The Beginnings of New England, it was the anarchical doctrines and egalitarianism that was objectionable, albeit heretical soteriology didn’t help. They did not come to Massachusetts to live peaceable, quiet lives, but to convert the populace and level hierarchies. Puritan patriarchs simply would not have it. Ironically, the Quakers became a formidable political force in the subsequent century and enjoyed influence comparable to that of Boston’s Puritan families (see E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia). In any case, whether one agrees with the likes of John Norton, Samuel Willard, or Nathaniel Ward on the question of liberty in religious practice, it must be admitted that the treatment of the Quakers was not exactly arbitrary or capricious.
In hindsight, the Puritans should have taken the near-term loss vis-a-vis the Quakers creeping up from Rhode Island—although to be fair, seventeenth century Quakers were quite the rabble rousers—rather than expose themselves to the watchful eye of Barad-dûr. At the very least, they should have tolerated the Anglicans and not so eagerly and defiantly limited the franchise so that the Crown wouldn’t have had such an easy excuse to lash out (really for purposes of economic efficiency). Instead, they ducked royal agents and ignored royal requests. By 1686 everything from the mid-Atlantic northward, excepting Pennsylvania, was consolidated into a single dominion under Edmund Andros. The charter had been annulled in 1684. Never let the perfect become an enemy of the good.
Even after the Revolution of 1688, the New Englanders never again recovered their original charter liberties. The dissolution of the Dominion of New England did not mean the removal of unelected royal governors thenceforth. In the end, the Puritans had made too much of a splash. They had exhibited too much subversiveness too soon—and it didn’t help that they had harbored regicides and gotten cozy with Cromwell either, or that they increasingly published the equivalent of cruise-line brochures for fundraising. After the two-year tyranny of Andros subsided, they could rule again, just not quite the way they used to. In hindsight, if they could have held out until the regime change of 1688, things would have gone very differently for them.
For a while, however, Puritans, who were no foreigners to Botero’s reason of state tradition, modeled how to be good hobbits, how to be effective dissidents. They were prudent and shrewd. They did not withdraw wholesale. But they did create space for themselves to recalibrate, build their community as they pleased, and seek to construct a viable socio-political alternative that could be adopted at scale should an opportune moment arise. In general, they laid low. At least half their energy was spent on not attracting attention, opting to work through favorable intermediaries who remained in the English church and government to plug their cause—dark elves, if you like.
I am aware, of course, of a qualitative distinction to be made between seventeenth century England and the United States in 2022. The divide back then was between Laudian Episcopalians and ever-fissiparous nonconformity. A basic western (and English) Christian framework was still shared, enough that Massachusetts maintained that it had never, in church or state, truly separated from England. Today, no such fundamentals are shared between elves and hobbits—even dark elves simply feel bad for hobbits.
Popular narratives of the Puritans are usually quite false. But they get one thing right: the New England project was a failure in its immediate aims, but precipitated larger, unforeseen developments down the road, namely, the eventual overthrow of Crown rule by their Yankee progeny, however much the latter deviated from the former in character and aim.The latter development would have been an impossible feat had it not been for the largest dissident project in history in 1630-1691. All in all, except presumably for monarchists like Moldbug, the end result was a net positive.
The lesson is that modern dissidents need to seek out space-creating opportunities. We need breathing room, just like the Puritans did. We need to actively foster an attitude of salutary neglect toward us by the elites. All of this is the case so that alternative models for society—physical and digital, spatial and ideological—can be constructed and tested according to dissident principles. Perhaps this looks something like what Matthew Peterson talks about when he advocates for building a new media apparatus and constructing new business ecosystems, all with the aim of promulgating a renewed American way of life. As he says, “In America, the frontier is always with us.”
Maybe it will consist in a renewed and vigorous Federalism, such as is increasingly on display in states like Florida. Yet, conflict too early, too aggressively, and too comprehensively could threaten the whole enterprise. We must await our Cromwellian moment, if you like, and endeavor to seize it better than the Puritans did.
The first order of business is accepting our minority, embattled status and shifting tactics accordingly. Yarvin’s defensive crouch may not always be appropriate, as it was not in the case of abortion, but it remains instructive. Space-creating mechanisms should be a central focus of the nascent new right at present. Whether online or off, until such space is acquired the likelihood of sustained national rejuvenation is unlikely—the right cannot rally around an inchoate view from nowhere. And we cannot win by playing a game constructed to ensure our loss.
We also must, where possible, remain under the radar of our elites. At present, they seem to be bent on our subjugation or even eradication, so this might be a tall order. In short, we must seek out our frontier without losing ourselves in the wilderness.
*Image Credit: Unsplash