The Rise of the Right-Wing Progressives
Noting some confusions, making some distinctions
A few months ago the prominent tech investor Marc Andreessen released a lengthy “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” that caused a big stir on certain segments of the internet. It’s a full-throated hymn glorifying technology, progress, and boundless growth, while castigating what it portrays as the demoralization, enervation, and stagnation of our society. This means it is deeply confused (about which more in a moment). But more interesting to me was that the outraged reactions which the manifesto provoked from the world’s overwhelmingly left-wing tech journalists routinely described it and Andreessen as not only right-wing but as conservative or even reactionary. This was particularly incoherent, because, as the manifesto makes clear, Andreessen is not a conservative, let alone a reactionary, but a progressive – just a right-wing one.
I want to break down how and why that is the case, because I think the incident, and the rising influence in America of a wider group of what should properly be called Right-Wing Progressives, provides a great example of how our whole left-right conception of politics has degenerated into a state of deep confusion and uselessness – and how this is leading to some very muddled thinking about who is what and what should be done about the raging dumpster fire of our present modernity.
I also want to lay a foundation here from which to offer what I think would be a much better model for thinking about and describing broader political categories today (which I’ll address later in a Part II). For now, let’s begin by taking a look at the manifesto…
A Progressive Confusion
Andreessen’s manifesto is a statement of faith in Progress. Its basic argument can be summarized as follows:
Growth is the ultimate Good, and the purpose of life is to pursue growth: “Techno-Optimists believe that societies, like sharks, grow or die… We believe everything good is downstream of growth.”
Growth = progress: “We believe growth is progress – leading to vitality, expansion of life, increasing knowledge, higher well being…”
The potential for growth is infinite: “We believe that since human wants and needs are infinite, economic demand is infinite, and job growth can continue forever.”
Technology is the ultimate source of growth, and therefore of the Good: “[T]he only perpetual source of growth is technology.”… “Combine technology and markets and you get what [neo-reactionary writer] Nick Land has termed the techno-capital machine, the engine of perpetual material creation, growth, and abundance.”… “Technology is the glory of human ambition and achievement, the spearhead of progress, and the realization of our potential. For hundreds of years, we properly glorified this – until recently. I am here to bring the good news.”
Technology’s power is infinite: “We believe that there is no material problem – whether created by nature or by technology – that cannot be solved with more technology.”
With enough technological magic we can achieve utopia: “We believe that technology ultimately drives the world to what Buckminster Fuller called ‘ephemeralization’ – what economists call ‘dematerialization’. Fuller: ‘Technology lets you do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.’” … “We believe in making everyone rich, everything cheap, and everything abundant.”
Technology is a reflection of our intelligence, which is humanity’s highest virtue: “We believe intelligence is the ultimate engine of progress. Intelligence makes everything better… Intelligence is the birthright of humanity; we should expand it as fully and broadly as we possibly can.”
If our intellect can build technological machines that can in turn expand our intelligence this will be the infinity key that transfigures us into the equivalent of gods: “We believe we are poised for an intelligence takeoff that will expand our capabilities to unimagined heights. We believe Artificial Intelligence is our alchemy, our Philosopher’s Stone – we are literally making sand think. We believe Artificial Intelligence is best thought of as a universal problem solver.”
Because progress is the source of everything good, opposing technological progress is a moral crime: “We believe in accelerationism – the conscious and deliberate propulsion of technological development… To ensure the techno-capital upward spiral continues forever.” … “We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.”
Technology and progress are sources of human vitality, greatness, and virtue: “We believe in ambition, aggression, persistence, relentlessness – strength… We believe in what the Greeks called eudaimonia through arete – flourishing through excellence. We believe technology makes greatness more possible and more likely.”
Technology liberates us by expanding the power of our will over the world: “We believe technology is liberatory. Liberatory of human potential. Liberatory of the human soul, the human spirit. Expanding what it can mean to be free, to be fulfilled, to be alive. We believe technology opens the space of what it can mean to be human.”
Technological progress is a form of struggle, and struggle (to grow and expand) is the essence of life: “We believe in nature, but we also believe in overcoming nature… We believe in greatness.” … “To paraphrase a manifesto of a different time and place [by Italian fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in 1909]: ‘Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Technology must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.’”
Restraint, humility, egalitarianism, weakness, and deference to the past are all enemies of mankind: “Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades – against technology and against life.” … “Our enemy is stagnation. Our enemy is anti-merit, anti-ambition, anti-striving, anti-achievement, anti-greatness. Our enemy is statism, authoritarianism, collectivism, central planning, socialism. Our enemy is bureaucracy, vetocracy, gerontocracy, blind deference to tradition.” … “Our enemy is Friedrich Nietzsche’s Last Man.”
But, somehow, all this isn’t utopian or egomaniacal: “However, we are not Utopians. We are adherents to what [conservative] Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision.”
Maybe you can already spot the contradictions. Andreessen has mashed various trendy philosophical and political influences together in an attempt to sell the spirit of his manifesto. He has tried to weld together the techno-progress cult of Silicon Valley, the boundless liberationism of free-market individualist liberalism, the Nietzschean vitalism of the neo-pagan and “neo-reactionary” corners of the online right, and the anti-Woke, anti-communist, anti-bureaucratic bonafides of American conservativism.
This doesn’t work. One of those four is particularly out of place: the manifesto, being a paean to limitless progress and an unrealized utopian future, isn’t just un-conservative – it’s actively anti-conservative. If you believe everything in the future will be better than in the past, then there is nothing from the past that deserves to be conserved. Change in this view is always positive (and we shouldn’t forget that, as a venture capitalist, Andreessen literally has a monetary incentive to act as a change merchant.) Nor does the manifesto contain any of the prudence, moderation, or respect for inherited tradition common to the “restrained vision” of conservatism; instead, in the spirit of moving fast and breaking things, it denounces the very notion of precaution. A bulldozer for every fence! And naturally it contains not a word about religion or wisdom of any kind, or any form of the timeless eternal values necessary for real eudaimonia. In short, its progressivism is in straightforward opposition to conservatism.
Nor is the manifesto in any way reactionary. The reactionary believes even more firmly than the conservative that, at least as regards the most important of things in life (the higher things), much about the past was in fact better than the present. Most importantly, Man himself was in some real sense better and nobler and more virtuous in the past than he is today. And, noting that the trend line of “progress” seems to be driving mankind only further into the mud, the reactionary hopes to correct course and actively restore the best of what has been vandalized. Historically this has meant the “throne and altar” of rightful king and true religion, though other variants, such as a reactionary republicanism, are conceivable. What a reactionary obviously simply cannot be is a progressive futurist. Though Andreessen cites multiple “neo-reactionary” thinkers in the manifesto (so-called because they would prefer to see democracy replaced by a CEO-king), most of these figures seem to typically be much more concerned with all the progress they think could be unleashed through a change of political regime than they are with restoring any eternal virtues – and are therefore in truth much more “neo-” than “reactionary.”
Finally, the manifesto isn’t even really coherent with the Nietzschean-inflected vitalism that it tries to celebrate. Though Nietzsche was far more of a revolutionary than he was a reactionary, and is therefore much more suitable to a futurist mindset, there is a big problem here: how does Andreessen think once-vital man became Nietzsche’s weak and listless Last Man in the first place? How did he lose his greatness, excellence, agency, and vitality – his striving “aggression, persistence, relentlessness – strength”? As Curtis Yarvin has also noted, the obvious answer is that this thumotic spirit was gradually eradicated by the ease and dependency created by his own technological machines. Strength and hardiness are produced by hardship and deprivation, not comfort and plenty. If Andreessen believes the infinite abundance and fully-automated luxury of his imagined technological future would ever produce anything more than those obese blob-humans of WALL-E (bound to their anti-gravity chairs and fully dependent on robots to fulfill their every decadent need, including to make all their decisions) then he is gravely mistaken. A truly vital humanism would contemptuously reject the sweet siren call of the machine for the bodily and spiritual struggle of a voluntary barbarism. The techno-optimist habitually proposes the opposite.
Nonetheless, despite its having been obscured by being mashed together with a few too many incompatible ideas, a coherent core philosophy does emerge from Andreessen’s manifesto: that of Right-Wing Progressivism.
Portrait of a Right-Wing Progressive
Who/what is a Right-Wing Progressive (RWP)? Start by picturing a Silicon Valley elite who is by now well-and-truly fed up with the Woke left. But the causes for the RWP’s objection to the Woke mind-virus and its regnant regime differ significantly from those of a traditional conservative. The conservative loathes the Woke for their revolutionary assault on the moral, cultural, and social order, on foundational structures of civilization like the family, and on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful writ large. In contrast, the RWP is likely to consider these things to be at most tangential to his main concern. His anti-Wokeness is motivated mostly by an assessment that the ideology is degrading meritocracy, promoting irrational stupidity, inhibiting scientific innovation, diverting investment into worthless causes, and limiting long-term economic performance – in other words that it is holding back progress.
RWPs are what Virginia Postrel, in her 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies, approvingly dubbed “dynamists”: individuals whose primary vision for a good society is a state of constant Promethean invention, discovery, growth, and transformation. They see their true enemies as what Postrel labels “stasists”: nostalgia-ridden, backwards-looking brutes who hate change and for some unimaginable reason want to keep everything old and therefore obsolete from being replaced by new and better things. Today, from the RWP’s point of view, the forces of stasism just happen to include the Woke left in addition to conservatives.
Dynamism is for example the obvious motivating philosophy of the world’s most famous RWP, Elon Musk, the Technoking. Elon has, for instance, stated quite clearly that he bought Twitter not out of any desire to aid conservatives, but because he sees robust free speech as a necessary societal mechanism for the knowledge production and innovation needed to achieve his goal of making humanity a star-faring, multi-planetary species. As with all his other companies – such as Neuralink, which aims make us all smarter by putting chips in our brains – Elon’s goal is preserving and accelerating progress. But because he is also anti-Woke, Elon nonetheless makes journalists’ heads continuously short-circuit until they label him a conservative anyway.
In part this is because, despite their differences, both the RWP and the conservative are genuinely right-wing. What does this mean? How should we define “right” and “left”? Each label has come to be associated with a whole cluster of otherwise unrelated political values and beliefs that have then been conflated into chimerical political personalities (despite these conglomerations falling apart as soon as anyone holds both “left” and “right”-coded values at the same time, as many do). But, beneath all the accumulated political detritus, there is one essential difference between a rightist and a leftist. This is not the conservative vs. progressive axis, but one between egalitarianism and hierarchy.
To be right-wing is to especially value hierarchy, and indeed to perceive and think about the world through hierarchies. This is to be “discriminating” in its original sense: to be able and willing to recognize that A is better than B in some way, and to therefore place A ahead of B and call this a proper and just ordering of things. In contrast, to be left-wing is to value the principle of equality over other values. Whereas Plato and Aristotle would have defined justice as the giving to each of precisely what they deserve, in a pure left conception justice and equality are synonymous: justice is when all receive the same. This precludes hierarchies. To favor or even recognize person A over person B – or in the most radical conceptions even idea or behavior X over Y – would be to create inequality, and therefore injustice.
This division over hierarchy goes beyond the sociopolitical hierarchies many typically think of when they hear the word (kings, hereditary nobility, etc.) Meritocracy, for instance, remains an inherently right-wing idea because it is a way of ordering people in a hierarchy, in this case based on their relative talent. To the radical left-winger this is still unjust (and unkind, hateful, etc.), because the outcome is unequal. In her view the system should rightly be structured to produce equality as its primary object. This applies to abstract values like morals as well: in a state of equality how can one person or behavior really be held as more moral than another? The result is relativism. Even science (real science) is arguably a distinctly right-wing pursuit, because a scientist cannot be egalitarian with facts. The dispassionate pursuit of truth requires the valuing of truth over all other goods.
There is another distinction in values that is commonly seen to divide right from left: preference for order vs. anarchy. The right is seen as promoting a more strict, even authoritarian, social and moral order, while the left excuses or even promotes forms of social and moral chaos, such as crime and deviancy. Relatedly, the right believes strongly in the importance of borders and boundaries of all kinds, whether between countries or between genders, while the left prefers fluidity and transgression. But these tendencies are in large part also merely reflections of respect or lack-thereof for hierarchical structures, including legal and moral value structures. Stable social order is everywhere a product of hierarchies, and cannot be maintained under conditions of pure egalitarianism. For the leftist this is an acceptable tradeoff for greater equality.
Here the RWP and the conservative find common ground. Both consider the crime and disorder produced by unrestrained liberal-leftism to be outrageous, if for slightly different reasons. RWPs – almost all of whom notably reside in the cities of the U.S. West Coast – have seen first hand the places they live, such as San Francisco, degenerate into dystopian epicenters of anarcho-tyranny, featuring rampant drug use, vagrancy, violence, and theft combined with a vast oppressive and corrupt state bureaucracy. They would now like to clean up this mess, recognizing a basic state of order as a necessary prerequisite for the thriving innovation and dynamism Silicon Valley was once known for.
“State capacity” is a phrase one is quite liable to hear bandied about by an RWP. It refers to how capable a state (the government, but in a broader sense also society more widely) is at actually getting things done, whether containing crime and providing security, building infrastructure, or creating the conditions for a flourishing semiconductor industry. Until recently many RWPs often distinguished themselves, in my experience, by displaying a barely concealed admiration for China. China might be authoritarian, but at least it was a country that could build things – did you know they could replace a major urban bridge in under 48 hours? Did you know how much Chinese society valued education and technologists? That many of their leaders even have engineering degrees? That China’s universities are not filled with Woke gender studies harridans? That the streets of Shenzhen aren’t covered in feces and passed out drug addicts? Lately, after China’s disastrous “zero-Covid” lockdown policies and the dramatic slowing of its economy, RWP opinion of China and its leader Xi Jinping has waned considerably. But new international RWP heroes have since emerged, such as Nayib Bukele, the bitcoin loving president of El Salvador, whose iron-handed approach has managed to crater the country’s once murderously-high crime rate.
The RWP is not exactly a libertarian, even if many of his kind are often vociferous advocates of free market solutions and deregulation. Certainly he is likely to be found supporting a gamut of liberal policies and projects that most conservatives would oppose: globalization and broadly open legal immigration regimes, surrogacy, abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, replacing meat with cultivated cancer-meat, and so on. But he may at the same time support a strong state, capable of maintaining domestic order and security, as well as a favorable “rules-based international order” abroad.
What really sets him apart is the end to which he believes political leadership ought to be for. Whereas the libertarian believes the state should minimize itself in order to achieve the goal of maximizing liberty, the RWP believes the purpose of the state (and in fact all of civilization) is to facilitate the maximization of progress. If a hands-off, low-tax, free market approach seems to be what will facilitate the most progress, he’s for that. If the state-directed policies of an enlightened authoritarianism would produce more progress, he’s for that too. And if what progress really demands is that democracy be replaced with a monarch, well then long live the king!
This is partially the product of another characteristic RWP philosophy: consequentialism, or the idea that the ends determine the morality of the means. This consequentialism is in turn the outgrowth of the core belief system of most RWPs: Rationalism, or the belief that all our decisions can and should be determined entirely by the objective and rational analysis of data, and that if smart people could only weed out humanity’s many cognitive and emotional biases we would discover the correct solutions to all our problems. Not coincidentally, a huge proportion of today’s RWPs seem to have sprouted out of a youth spent in the contemporary Rationalist movement, a collection of very earnest nerds who gathered on the internet during roughly the mid-2000s-2010s and spent a lot of energy debating each other about who was less wrong. Unfortunately in the end this echo chamber mostly produced an array of bizarre specimens of the sort who babble about how Bayesian priors prove Shakespeare must suck, actually, and what not. Many such sad cases.
Relatedly, many influential RWPs also seem to have got their start in the Effective Altruism (EA) cult, which began as an attempt to apply the Rationalist movement’s principles to improving the world through philanthropy and ended up starting a lot of weird Silicon Valley-area sex polycules and defrauding investors with crypto scams. You know, for the greater good. But what really ruined EA for the RWPs was when its leadership turned against AI, becoming obsessed with how it could possibly destroy humanity and arguing that consequentialism demanded its development be safely regulated in the name of trillions of theoretical future human lives. Following this heretically stasist turn, a great schism saw EA’s RWPs defect to champion unrestrained technological development in the name of trillions of theoretical future human lives. Many of these began to, like Andreessen, instead identify themselves as Effective Accelerationists, or E/ACC (thus forming the background to Andreessen’s manifesto).
In reality, however, the beliefs of the EAs and the E/ACCs remain nearly identical: both claim to advocate for rationalism-driven progress; they differ only in that the now largely left-wing EAs advocate for more egalitarian-inflected policies (such as for “safety” and “inclusion” to be priorities in AI development), while the largely right-wing E/ACCs want the chips of unbounded dynamism to fall and accumulate where and to whom they may. Theirs is really just an intramural dispute between the autistic kids who played too much Factorio.
Faith in rationalism’s ability to drive human progress is also what tethers the RWP to the broader and older school of political thought that is Progressivism (with a capital P). Though RWPs may disapprove of much of what today’s egalitarian, left-wing Progressives argue for, many RWP beliefs and inclinations are fundamentally similar to the older, more original forms of Progressivism.
Fundamental is of course their shared basic faith in progress and the transcendent future, such that much of Andreessen’s manifesto could be swapped out with lines from random Woodrow Wilson speeches and no one would know the difference: “we think of the future, not the past, as the more glorious time in comparison with which the present is nothing. Progress, development – those are modern words. The modern idea is to leave the past and press onward to something new.”
But the similarities extend beyond this. Most striking in my view is perhaps a disproportionate obsession with intelligence and measuring IQ, including at the individual, group, and population levels. This myopia is born of the Rationalist assumption that goodness – good thinking, good policies, good people – is inevitably derived from a purity of reason, and reason from intellect, such that all Mankind’s problems must really result from the stain of the stupid. Unsurprisingly, this belief leads a fair number of RWPs into a recognizable entrancement with the same forms of Social Darwinism, including eugenics, that were widely and enthusiastically embraced by the original Progressives. A few of the more edgy RWPs seem like they really would have had a grand old time hanging out with Progressive OGs like Margaret Sanger – sterilizing the poor, aborting the genetically deficient, and ensuring those they consider to be the wrong sort never make it to the voting booth in the first place.
The fixation on intelligence also explains the common RWP obsession with AI. If in their view intelligence is the proper measure on which to determine hierarchy, then if an AI were to become more intelligent than us humans it would ipso facto be a superior being to us. At that point we would have to rightly defer to its will – and, at the extreme, worship the wisdom of its supreme rationalism and facilitate the progressive replacement of Man by the superiority of machine intelligence. In this sense some RWPs evince a philosophy that is ultimately as distinctly anti-human as any Malthusian, nihilistic Left-Wing Progressive.
One Nation Under Progress
I should clarify here that I don’t mean to completely castigate Right-Wing Progressives. I know many RWPs personally, and most are lovely people despite the best efforts of their adopted moral philosophy. And I don’t completely reject the ability of technology to improve our lives, despite RWP’s unwillingness to recognize its many unfashionable-to-discuss downsides, including its tendency to systematically produce over-complexity, fragility, and weakness. Certainly the general vision offered by the RWPs is still genuinely a much more attractive alternative to the dystopia offered by the Woke left. Overall I can appreciate much about their spirit, and find that I am aligned with them across a fair number of issues, including their stated opposition to smothering, totalitarian bureaucracy.
Nonetheless, I do think many of their fundamental ideas and assumptions are deeply wrong, and ultimately dangerous. I can’t help but note the striking similarity of many RWPs to the intellectuals and industrialists of the N.I.C.E. in C.S. Lewis’ prophetic novel That Hideous Strength, who believed their superior Luciferian intellect gave them the right to rule over, manipulate, abuse, and reshape mankind in the name of scientific efficiency, enlightenment, and progress. They too placed intelligence and the pursuit of cold rationality ahead of all else, and in the end came to view common Man with contempt and to seek his replacement.
In the new age, what has hitherto been merely the intellectual nucleus of the race is to become, by gradual stages, the race itself,” Frost says to Mark in the bowels of the N.I.C.E. “The old complex organs and the large body which contained them are no longer necessary… The individual is to become all head. The human race is to become all technocracy…
In his manifesto, Andreessen rightly decries the menace of managerial “statism, authoritarianism, collectivism, central planning, [and] socialism.” But his association of these things with techno-pessimism and hidebound, anti-progress traditionalism is profoundly off base. All the largest and most horrific examples of “statism, authoritarianism, collectivism, central planning, [and] socialism” in history have been ideologies, movements, and states that, not coincidentally, idolized progress and the glorious unrealized future as their north star. The results of this idolization always have been and always will be a disaster for humanity, because the imagined future serves as an excuse to justify any action at all in the here and now, no matter how delusional or destructive. Combining rapturous techno-utopianism with Ayn Rand will not absolve this problem.
The truth, in my view, is that it is in part precisely an unrestrained lust for change in the name of progress that got us into our current civilizational mess in the first place. It’s not going to be what gets us out. And as for the vision techno-optimists sell, of humanity sailing the stars, expanding ever outward to conquer the galaxy, that does sound pretty cool. Someday it may even happen, and I wouldn’t complain. But this vision is not a solution to the nihilism that has gripped our societies today; endless expansion and acquisition for the sake of expansion and acquisition is just another expression of nihilism. Sometimes I even get the feeling that the sheer devotion some display in their zeal for this science-fiction future is itself a sign of the depths of their despair in the actual here and now. Escaping this pit is going to take more than the materialist-rationalists and their machines can ever provide.
As for today’s conservatives and authentic reactionaries, they should be clear-eyed about the realities of their similarities and differences with Right-Wing Progressives. In the face of unrelenting assault by the managerial regime and the political left, now is hardly the time for breaking up with friends and allies. Still, we should be able to recognize the RWPs for what they are – or at least are not. No matter how vocally anti-Woke they are, or how much they are rightly celebrated for the great deal they’ve already contributed to the fight for free speech and to the “heterodox” corners of the internet, RWPs are not the least bit conservative or reactionary and do not share the same fundamental interests as those who are. At some point, if the immediate war is largely won, these camps that were once on the same side are likely to find themselves starkly at odds over where to go next. If you look closely, those differences are already frequently on display all over the place.
Unfortunately for us, I think that whenever such a time for choosing arrives, it is the RWPs who will initially have a real advantage in momentum and popularity, at least here in the United States. That’s because the story of America is in part essentially one of the long-running triumph of the Faustian spirit of techno-optimistic dynamism over every competitor so far, for better and worse. Why exactly that’s the case is a topic to explore in more detail another time, but for now I’d just say: watch for the continued rise of today’s Right-Wing Progressives; they’re likely only just getting started.
 The factory must grow!
 This was back before the fascists adopted too many of the Progressives’ ideas and made them passé.