The Reactionary Futurism of Marc Andreessen

In July, Marc Andreessen — the godfather of the web browser, one of the founders of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and arguably the chief ideologist of the Silicon Valley elite — published a Substack piece that struck me as unusually revealing.

This was back when Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk were considering whether to settle their differences once and for all by beating on each other in a cage. Andreessen, who sits on Meta’s board of directors, was asked about the possible fight at the Allen & Company conference, a gathering for the wealthy and well connected in Sun Valley, Idaho. What he told the assembled, and what he now wanted to tell the rest of us, was that he thought it was great. “I consider Mark and Elon to be role models to children in their embrace of fighting,” Andreessen writes.

Andreessen’s argument goes like this: Combat sports play a primal role in human civilization. An M.M.A.-like sport, pankration, was part of the ancient Greek games beginning in 648 B.C. and was used to train Greek soldiers. (“If the hair on the back of your neck isn’t going up as you read this …” Andreessen writes, after quoting a few paragraphs from Wikipedia.) Modern American society, at least in the big cities, is turning on law enforcement and tolerating crime, so you need combat skills to protect your loved ones. We are also fat and depressed, and learning to fight might help on both counts. In conclusion, “if it was good enough for Heracles and Theseus, it’s good enough for us.”

I’m sympathetic to the virtues of combat sports — I was a middling but committed high school wrestler, with a particularly quick head-and-arm throw — even if Andreessen overstates his case. But what caught my eye was the veneration of the virile aggression of the Greeks, the call to rediscover the ways of the ancients. A list of things that were good enough for the Greeks but not good enough for us would run long: Slavery, pederasty and bloodletting come to mind. But that would take Andreessen too literally. As Paul Valéry, the French poet, once said, “Ancient Greece is the most beautiful invention of the modern age.” To treat Andreessen’s essay as an argument misses the point. It’s a vibe. And the vibe is reactionary.

We are used to thinking of our ideological divide as cleaving conservatives from liberals. I think the Republican Party’s collapse into incoherence reflects the fact that much of the modern right is reactionary, not conservative. This is what connects figures as disparate as Jordan Peterson and J.D. Vance and Peter Thiel and Donald Trump. These are the ideas that unite both the mainstream and the weirder figures of the so-called postliberal right, from Patrick Deneen to the writer Bronze Age Pervert. This is not a coalition that cares about tax cuts. It’s a coalition obsessed with where we went wrong: the weakness, the political correctness, the liberalism, the trigger warnings, the smug elites. It’s a coalition that believes we were once hard and have become soft; worse, we have come to lionize softness and punish hardness.

The story of the reactionary follows a template across time and place. It “begins with a happy, well-ordered state where people who know their place live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God,” Mark Lilla writes in his 2016 book, “The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.” He continues:

The Silicon Valley cohort Andreessen belongs to has added a bit to this formula. In their story, the old way that is being lost is the appetite for risk and inequality and dominance that drives technology forward and betters human life. What the muscled ancients knew and what today’s flabby whingers have forgotten is that man must cultivate the strength and will to master nature, and other men, for the technological frontier to give way. But until now, you had to squint to see it, reading small-press books or following your way down into the meme holes that have become the preferred form of communication among this crew.

Now Andreessen has distilled the whole ideology to a procession of stark bullet points in his latest missive, the buzzy, bizarre “Techno-Optimist Manifesto.” I think it ill named. What makes it distinctive is not its views on technology, which are crude for a technologist of Andreessen’s stature. Rather, it’s the pairing of the reactionary’s sodden take on modern society with the futurist’s starry imagining of the bright tomorrow. So call it what it is: reactionary futurism.

Andreessen’s argument is simple: Technology is good. Very good. Those who stand in its way are bad. He is clear on who they are, in a section titled simply “The Enemy.” The list is long, ranging from “anti-greatness” to “statism” to “corruption” to “the ivory tower” to “cartels” to “bureaucracy” to “socialism” to “abstract theories” to anyone “disconnected from the real world … playing God with everyone else’s lives” (which arguably describes the kinds of technologists Andreessen is calling forth, but I digress). It ends — I kid you not — on a quotation from Nietzsche. “The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small.”

So who is it, exactly, who extinguishes the dancing star within the human soul?

The enemy, in other words, is anything or anyone who might seek to yoke technology to social goals or structures, who would erect guardrails or impose limits on the John Galts of tomorrow.

There is a special pain in seeing ideas you believe in deformed for such purposes. Andreessen and I are not that far apart on some of the basics. For years, I’ve been arguing for politics to take technology more seriously, to see new inventions as no less necessary than social insurance and tax policy in bringing about a worthier world. Too often, we debate only how to divvy up what we already have. We have lost the habit of imagining what we could have; we are too timid in deploying the coordinated genius and muscle of society to pull possibilities from the far future into the near present.

Credit…Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images, via Getty Images

I’m co-writing a book on these ideas. As part of that research, I’ve been digging into the history of where and when we lost faith in technology and, more broadly, growth. At the core of that story is an inability to manage, admit or even see when technologies or policies go awry. The turn toward a less-is-more politics came in the 1970s, when the consequences of reckless growth became unignorable. All the manifestoes in the world count for little against the burn of smog in the lungs and the trapping of heat in the atmosphere.

Did we, in some cases, overcorrect? Absolutely. But the only reason we can even debate whether we overcorrected is because we corrected: The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and a slew of other bills and regulations did exactly what they promised. “Looking back, an unspoken bargain was struck,” the law professors J.B. Ruhl and James Salzman write in their paper “The Greens’ Dilemma.” They explain:

It is telling that Andreessen groups sustainability and degrowth into the same bucket of antagonists. Degrowth is largely, though not wholly, skeptical of technological solutions to our problems. It does not believe that we can continue to do more with less; it believes we need to content ourselves with less. But the politics of sustainability — as evidenced in legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act — have settled into another place entirely: a commitment to solving our hardest environmental problems by driving technology forward, by investing and deploying clean energy infrastructure at a scale unlike anything the government has done since the 1950s.

Andreessen focuses at some length on the nuclear future he believes we’ve been denied — I’d agree that regulation has been too heavy-handed in that arena, though it’s worth noting that nuclear power has faced similar problems across a range of countries with very different cultures and regulatory systems — but curiously ignores the stunning advances in solar and wind and battery power that public policy has delivered.

Why does that remarkable success go unmentioned? Perhaps because it makes heroes of Andreessen’s preferred villains. He yearns for a kind of person, not just a kind of technology. “We believe in ambition, aggression, persistence, relentlessness — strength,” he writes, italics included. “We believe in merit and achievement. We believe in bravery, in courage.”

Andreessen is not entirely wide of the mark here. There are ways in which these virtues have become undervalued, in which the left, in particular, has a dysfunctional relationship with individual achievement and entrepreneurial élan. But what’s needed is a synthesis Andreessen doesn’t even attempt, preferring the aesthetic of the Übermensch to the complexities of the age.

As others have noted, Andreessen’s ideas trace an odd, meme-based philosophy that has flourished in some corners of the internet known as effective accelerationism, and I take one goal of his essay as gently luring readers into the weirder ideas he favors but fears describing. His list of “patron saints” is, among other things, a roll call of these voices.

To quote the first two names on Andreessen’s list — “BasedBeffJezos” and “Bayeslord,” both accounts on X, the service formerly known as Twitter — “Effective accelerationism aims to follow the ‘will of the universe’: leaning into the thermodynamic bias towards futures with greater and smarter civilizations that are more effective at finding/extracting free energy from the universe,” and “E/acc has no particular allegiance to the biological substrate for intelligence and life, in contrast to transhumanism.” OK!

If it were called affective accelerationism, it’d make more sense. This is not a cold analysis of the policies and social decisions that will accelerate the development of key technologies. It, too, is a vibe. But heedlessness often backfires.

Take Andreessen’s naming of trust and safety teams as among his enemies. We have an example of that playing out in the real world right now. Musk purchased Twitter (in an acquisition that Andreessen Horowitz helped finance) and gutted its trust and safety teams. The result has been a profusion of chaos, disinformation and division on his platform. How has that worked out? A new analysis by Similarweb found that traffic to twitter.com fell in the United States by 19 percent from September 2022 to September 2023 and traffic on mobile devices fell by almost 18 percent. Indications are that advertising revenue on the platform is collapsing.

Andreessen spends much of his manifesto venerating the version of markets that you hear in the first few weeks of Econ 101, before the professor begins complicating the picture with all those annoying market failures. “Markets exploit the best of us to benefit all of us,” he writes. But Andreessen’s firm was perhaps the most ardent and outspoken of the crypto boosters in recent years. Little has shown the dangers of unregulated markets as cleanly as that particular bout of madness, and one wonders whether the countless ordinary investors who lost their shirts in scams and crashes are feeling particularly techno-optimistic right now.

Throughout his essay, Andreessen is at pains to attack those who might slow the development of artificial intelligence in the name of safety, but nothing would do more to freeze progress in A.I. than a disaster caused by its reckless deployment. Washington cannot yet decide what it wants to do about A.I., but if the technologies black out the energy grid in the Southwest or create an inadvertent body count, regulators will come up with a plan in a hurry.

“We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt,” Andreessen writes. “We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.” Or so we want to believe. I am more of a McLuhanite in this — though, given Andreessen’s affection for Nietzsche, perhaps a quote of his is what we need here. “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” It is hard to read Andreessen’s manifesto, with its chopped-up paragraphs and its blunt jabs of thought delivered for maximum engagement and polarization, and not feel that Andreessen now reflects the medium in which he has made his home: X. He doesn’t just write in the way the medium rewards. He increasingly seems to think in its house style, too.

One reason I left Twitter long ago is that I noticed that it was a kind of machine for destroying trust. It binds you to the like-minded but cuts you from those with whom you have even modest disagreements. There is a reason that Twitter’s rise was conducive to politics of revolution and reaction rather than of liberalism and conservatism. If you are there too often, seeing the side of humanity it serves up, it is easy to come to think that everything must be burned down.

That, in a way, is my core disagreement with Andreessen. Reactionary futurism is accelerationist in affect but deccelerationist in practice. Treating so much of society with such withering contempt will not speed up a better future. It will turn people against the politics and policies of growth, just as it did before. Trust is the most essential technology of all.

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