Discover more from Aaron Renn
Newsletter #67: Anti-Managerial Aesthetics
Welcome back to my monthly longform newsletter. This is always free, but you can get access to additional exclusive content, podcast and interview transcripts, commenting privileges, and access to the Subscriber Knowledge Base by becoming a Subscriber today.
In newsletter #63 I laid out one of the fundamental ideas for understanding our world, the managerial revolution. Industrialization led to a vast expansion in the size of firms, cities, and governments, requiring large number of technically and administrative trained managers to run them. These managers have now become our de facto ruling class (though with some caveats). Many of the negative aspects of today’s society come from the collapse of other sources of authority and the triumph of managerialism in the post-Cold War World.
There’s a conundrum in resistance or reform to the managerial system. It takes a large organization to confront another large organizations. But any organization that becomes big becomes captured by managerial elements because it needs managers to function.
So how should would-be reformers then respond? One answer is aesthetically.
Dr. Benjamin L. Mabry, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from Louisiana State University and previously contributed a review of From Tolerance to Equality to American Reformer, contributed the essay below about aesthetics. It contains very important, thought provoking insights on this topic, so I encourage you to think about what it says.
I will be hosting Mabry for a live interview on Youtube to discuss this essay on Wednesday, August 17th at 2pm ET.
You may not be familiar with some of the people and works Mabry references. To help you, I’ve added copious links, and also a summary of material about them for further reading at the end. You may want to refer to them afterwards and then re-read the aesthetics essay.
by Dr. Benjamin L. Mabry
Those of us who are deeply dissatisfied with the state of modern culture seem to have converged on a point of agreement in our critiques of modernity. One serious problem with modern society, which underlies a host of problems around it, is the neglect of aesthetics, the art of the beautiful. Technocratic society rejects aesthetics as meaningless or frivolous. Postmodernism dismisses it as mere subjective preference or entirely arbitrary contingencies of time and culture. Establishment religion looks on it suspiciously as anti-spiritual or even idolatrous. The result is an unwillingness to acknowledge the role that the beautiful has in sustaining cultural accomplishments, ordering society towards the Good, or protecting spaces that uplift the human spirit. It lowers our expectations of our leaders, of our institutions, and especially the expectations that we make of ourselves. A turn back to aesthetics, toward a valuing of the beautiful as the beautiful as well as a signifier of the Good, is nearly universally acclaimed by right-thinking dissidents against the ugliness of modernity.
First, we must deal with properly answering the question, “What is aesthetics?” History, as well as common sense, tells us that there are many ways of being beautiful that vary across culture and time. This means it is not a single, dogmatic standard for beauty. Aesthetics is deeply linked to who we are, which means it is not an external science of objects but deeply interconnected to our inner worlds. Let it be proposed for this essay that at its core, aesthetics are the exterior manifestation of excellence in culture and identity, the signifiers that a man sees himself as different from the others and participates in a social environment of his own kind. Aesthetics are a self-presentation that asserts to others that a person belongs to a particular context and declares loyalty to a community and its principles. What is needed in America today is a culture and identity that distinguishes itself from the dominant, ugly aesthetic mode of Managerialism and asserts its own existence in competition to the elite models on the Right and Left.
Managerialism and Aesthetics
To do this, however, means to rethink the very foundation of aesthetic thought in a sharp break from the dominant, Managerial way of approaching this topic. At the heart of the Managerial social system is a hard distinction between elites and commons in terms of worldview, culture, and aesthetics. There’s a great danger in thinking about aesthetics from the perspective of the top 20% managerial class rather than another way of thinking about aesthetics as a seamless whole. This is the typical mode of Imperial societies that have a very rigid boundary between the Imperial citizen and the Imperial subject peoples.
One of the problems with borrowing aesthetic concepts from the Dissident Right, especially the Neoreactionary Right as pioneered and typified by Curtis Yarvin (who previously wrote under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug), is that this group is very managerial themselves. The Neoreactionary critique is not a critique of managerialism itself but a response by one group of potential managers who are not currently in power. Their basic perspective is that we should fire all the credentialed technocrats from the Harvard School of Government and Yale Law, and replace them with credentialed technocrats from MIT and Cal Tech. The problem with managerialism, this Imperial mode of social leadership, is not the issue of who is in charge but the idea that credentialed, technically-capable people are the proper leaders of society. Yarvin just as much fails to grasp this error as any other mainstream political theorist. Take, for example, his recent article about the “Elves and Hobbits.”
This article unwittingly reveals a truth about the nature of the author’s own social class, which the internet as a whole has recognized instinctively but has yet to articulate. Yarvin envisions America as divided between a Red-culture mass and a Blue-culture aristocracy (ignoring, for the moment, what Darel Paul calls the “creole” underclass third culture). The “elves” are who they are, according to Yarvin, because they’re simply better at ruling a complex technological society. If the social media response can be generalized, this article fell so flat as to constitute a modern remake of Wile E. Coyote and the anvil. Yarvin’s case for his social class’s claim to natural rule ultimately flopped before the audience of the world because even its factual errors were completely overshadowed by his utter aesthetic failure. Blue-culture Neo-urban technocrats are not the aristocrats of modern society but are what Venkatesh Rao described in a viral essay as “Premium Mediocre.” They are a class of a collapsing, unsustainable experiment in global economics.
I’m not going to go into all the reasons why Yarvin’s discussion is wrong on substantiative ground. The facts about the relation of technocrats to true elites, the reality of status as a mere consumer good in Blue-culture, or the way that Blue-culture is a pretension at excellence rather than providing anything of real value to society: all of these would make up an essay of their own. The point here is to observe the widespread and immediate acknowledgment that this essay and its attendant aesthetics is total and absolute cringe. People responded to the essay, not with reasoned argumentation against a contestable intellectual thesis, but with mockery.
Yarvin’s essay is grounded in these Managerial assumptions: the division of society into two distinct groupings of Imperial elves and proletarian hobbits, distinct modes of aesthetic valuing divided by class, and an incapacity of the lower class to recognize the lofty sentiments of the upper class. It can only be distinguished from the mainstream corporate-globalist approach by the particular facts of who is included and what is valued. At the level of aesthetics, Yarvin is indistinguishable from a New York marketing firm, Bay-Area tech company, or one of those Managerialized hipster religious groups like the ERLC. He’s raising up a model for excellence which is merely a stock-model with a paintjob, a piece of toast with avocado on top, a McDonald’s Signature Select meal.
Premium Mediocre status signaling is inherent in this model of 20-80 societies because it misunderstands elitism. There is no natural division between humans that falls along the 20-80 line. The truly exceptional are a much smaller minority, perhaps closer to 2% rather than 20% (real elite capabilities begin at two standard deviations above the mean). Any attempt to divide people into status groups along a 20-80 line will require some level of fake status inflation for the 18% who are elite by status but entirely pedestrian in terms of the human excellences, and this accounts for the rise of Premium Mediocre status objects. The Premium Mediocre object or person is higher status only for the purposes of drawing a line against the ordinary or average. It is essentially the same, but society arbitrarily elevates it and makes it scarce in order to create a false sense of superiority. However, without a powerful set of informational controls, the establishment loses the ability to mask that Premium Mediocre is the same garbage that everyone else has, only with a brand label. Yarvin’s elves are just hobbits who have been arbitrarily selected by real elites and possess badges of elevation. To borrow the still-cringe Lord of the Rings analogy, Yarvin and his Silicon Valley Blue-class are merely Lotho Sackville-Baggins and his band of Special Shirriffs. His only status comes from Saruman and when he is exposed, everyone sees him for what he is: “Little Pimple” and his pack of bullies who collaborated with the Scouring of the Shire. There’s nothing more cringe than that.
Aesthetics for a Unified Whole
An aesthetic of a restorative party should not reflect the same fundamental assumptions of their Managerial competition. We should not accept the sharp divide between the aesthetics of the top and of the rest. A non-managerial aesthetic of leadership should scale down to something fundamentally recognizable to the 50th percentile of society, or even something they can aspire towards. Theodore Roosevelt is a good example of this. TR’s rough-rider persona is something that can be comprehensible by the median citizen and is recognized by the ordinary person as an image that they can respect and, in some ways, aspire to imitate.
In contrast, take the aesthetics offered by our current Managerial class, even its dissident wings, and you see something that the ordinary citizen finds to be cringeworthy. Yarvin’s “elves” don’t actually have anything that is recognizable as excellence to the 50th percentile of society. Everything they have and do is, as Venkatesh Rao admits in his essay on Premium Mediocre, a kind of pretense at membership in the global elite or a cope for the fact that the promise of the Neo-urban cosmopolitan cities is a lie.
If you attended an overpriced university, moved to a prohibitively expensive city, and conformed to a cost-spiraling culture of consumerist exhibition (notice the common threads here: economic exploitation), you were promised membership in the exclusives, a life of relative comfort, opportunity for self-expression, and most importantly the ability to sneer down your nose at the people and places you left behind. All of these, except the last, were ultimately lies, and Premium Mediocrity is a way of dealing with the fact that people sold their minds, bodies, and souls for status and only really got a lame superiority complex. When viewed from either above by true elites, or below by ordinary folks, it’s actually kind of pathetic. This is why the aesthetics of the Premium Mediocre Upper-Middle class, the 20-minus-2 percent of college-educated and credentialed techno-bureaucrats in their coastal blue havens, is always a joke. It’s fake, and poser-ism is never cool, never aesthetic, and never elite.
Modern elites aren’t cool. They aren’t envied; they’re dweebs. One reason the media can so easily dismiss managerial aspirants from the dissident wings is that it is so very easy to mock and dismiss these people to the public on the basis of the massive disconnect between elite and non-elite aesthetics in the Managerial system. Pantsuit Hillary is aesthetic cringe but she has power and the backing of the Mainstream Media.
Without that power to blunt criticism and mockery, her conservative imitators like Nikki Haley are nothing but a punchline. It is my opinion that one reason the Right has failed so often to provide alternatives to leadership is that they cannot overcome the aesthetic and cultural barriers put in place by the Managerial Elites to secure their position. Anyone seeking to replace the current crop of leaders has to run a gauntlet of public criticism without the benefit of elite backing, and in doing so portray themselves as absurd to the bulk of the population. The average person doesn’t admire and aspire to be Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, or Nikki Haley, and they are not able to build the rapport with the public necessary to develop the kind of following that insulates you from fashion-based attacks from elite lapdogs in the media.
Take, for example, Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima’s discussion of Sun and Moon in his book Sun and Steel. The Moon persona is intelligent, erudite, and intellectual rather than physical in his demeanor. His aesthetic centers on his poetic and academic sensitivity; he is unathletic and physically unattractive. He is all mind and no body. This is the aesthetic of the manager class, what Yarvin calls Brahmin or Plato calls the Guardian caste. Mishima’s critique of the Moon persona is a critique of modern political leadership and the insufficiency of the Brahmin as a worldview and way of life. That these people consider themselves entitled to leadership today is an absurdity from Mishima’s standpoint.
This is not to say that we must accept the Sun persona in its place, what Yarvin calls Kshatriya or Plato describes as the Auxillaries, which is the approach of the vitalist pagan Right. I would read Mishima as seeing both as incomplete, and his prescription for more Sun and less Moon is a reaction to the particular situation of Japan after 1945 and the indescribable wrong that America did to Japanese culture in the wake of that war. Likewise, your Craftsman, Auxiliary, and Guardian in Plato’s Republic all represent incomplete persons who partake of one element to the exclusion of the others and are flawed models of human virtue.
One of the things that the author of Bronze Age Mindset does correctly is to design the BAP character as a more complete synthesis of Mishima’s Sun and Moon, or of Plato’s three castes. The main character is both athlete and scholar, sensate and intellectual, present-oriented and conscious of historicity. Unlike Managerial models of the ideal person, which reveal an aesthetic sense anchored in technics and narrow rationalism, Mishima and Plato offer a vision of excellence, or arete, as the foundation of a vision of the good. The greatest challenge to the culture and vision of Managerialism is a model of human leadership and ideal vision of the Man who is excellent in everything he does. The aesthetics of anti-Managerialism must offer something more inspiring than the narrow, specialized, cerebral expert-leader.
There are models which can be borrowed from other sources, but all will need some modification. The genius of a John Galt, the masculinity of a Teddy Roosevelt, the charisma of a William Jennings Bryan, are all antidotes to the Managerial model of the technical expert as leader and reveal some flaw in this vision of what a member of the elite should look like.
Technocrats command, leaders inspire followers. Even the most humble man can aspire to a simulacrum of TR’s bravado, Galt’s skill, or Bryan’s faith, but the cold, technical expertise of a Washington bureaucrat is entirely outside their social context. In these models, even the ordinary man can see a glimmer of himself in a more excellent and refined form, in contrast to the pale, inscrutable technocrat who appears entirely alien to the working and middle classes, and only appears to impose elite preferences upon them by the power of the state.
Scalability of the aesthetics of excellence permits a broader foundation for a social and cultural movement that is explicitly anti-Managerial and anti-technocratic, and is not reliant on major institutions of power typified by centralized command and control. You can be excellent with your buddies in your neighborhood or online, building identity and solidarity with the movement in the absence of national political parties or institutions of financial and political capital. When new institutions are ready to challenge the old Managerial powers, there is already a body primed to rise up in support, in the way that blue-collar American culture primed large numbers of people to join the Trump Movement when he was merely a low-polling also-ran in the Republican Primary.
Creating an Anti-Managerial Aesthetic
Any anti-Managerial aesthetic must be grounded in the historicity of discrete communities, against the Managerial ethos that states we are isolated individuals cast ashore on some arbitrary place and time. We must show through our self-presentation that we are fundamentally constituted by our network of relationships not only contemporaneously but through time itself, to our ancestors and our descendants. To approach this concept, let us begin from the other side, the via negativa, and describe what an anti-Managerial aesthetic is not. It is not the mania for newness that forms a central nexus in the Managerial aesthetic. The desire to be different, separate from the past, and change for the sake of change illustrates their principle that we are not grounded in place and time but exist as an unmoored “self” which can choose our own context, and are most empowered when we choose a context that is deeply alien to our native environment.
Take, for example, the mania for contemporary music in Protestant churches today. The character of the old hymn books was for a generational continuity in worship. The grandparent sings the same hymns as the grandchild, and this forms a common bond in their worship experience. The character of modern worship is to segregate our worship by age, with the old people singing the old hymns in one service, and the young people singing contemporary hymns in another. This reflects the growing Managerial ideology within the church, as we atomize and separate people into smaller and smaller cliques, and ironically blame it on the largeness of the congregation. Contemporary music severs the continuity of the worship community in time through a neophilia which declares the fundamental basis of music to be “relevance” and relevance to be defined as being different from the past. There is no longer anything which the grandparent and the grandchild can sing together; the Christian culture is effectively broken along generational lines, as Managerial elites intended all along. Lifeway and the Southern Baptist bureaucracies profit from the never-ending need for newness as the community of faith is converted into a standing reserve of capital to be liquidated for the benefit of religious vulture finance. No corporation profits, and no bureaucracy gains power, when folks sing “The Old Rugged Cross” or “Faith of our Fathers.” The only thing that the Managerial mind cannot bear is the existence of unowned, unexploited commons. This illustrates the fact that there really is little difference left between Managerial Capitalism and Communism.
On the other hand, it is also not William Lind’s book, Retroculture. Lind’s approach to aesthetic and cultural continuity comes off as a LARP because he still hasn’t broken from the Managerial worldview in which culture and aesthetic is still a consumer item that you buy and mix-and-match on the basis of individual taste (insofar as we can really say that anyone has “individual tastes” independent from a lifetime of influences, advertisements, and propaganda.) Lind’s Retroculture becomes another Managerial aesthetic for those whose tastes tend towards the quirky, and reduce cultural and aesthetic continuity to a kind of brand-name. 1980’s culture is transformed from being a stage in the growth of those people who lived those times into a particular label for goods and services to be consumed. Instead, an aesthetic of historicity should neither isolate one from the past nor become a hermitage of commoditized cliches but should reflect the fact that we lived through those times, learned from them, and incorporated them into who we are today. One doesn’t need to wear torn Metallica t-shirts to rock a few power chords and throw up the horns when appropriate. Aesthetics in continuity with the past do not play dress-up, but see what was best and incorporate it in a modern way, distinct to each community’s unique history and past.
A Japanese aesthetic will differ from a French aesthetic, and will differ from an American one. Cosmopolitanism is Managerial at its core. Cosmopolitan aesthetics are meaningless; they are a declaration that one belongs nowhere, that one has no loyalties or community other than those to the immediate moment of pleasure or profit. The Cosmopolitan aesthetic fulfills the needs of a Managerial regime by diminishing the role of self-presentation as a message from a particular community, culture, and faith about its values and principles. It reduces everything to interchangeable fashions equally vapid and hollow. Managerial corporations can easily put out twenty, fifty, or a hundred different brand-lines of cultural products, but what they can’t co-opt is a culture that cares not only about the style but the source and meaning of its aesthetic markers.
Consider the importance that some people put on “Made in America.” That simple difference reflects an aesthetic preference that cannot be subsumed by the global economy, and a measure of authenticity that, in a very minor way, goes beyond the merely superficial “look” of a product. What might be the characteristics of an American aesthetic that cares not only about looking American, but being Made in America, being conceived in America, or being truly “of” America? How might such a concern for authentic American-ness, as more than merely a brand name, reflect an approach to culture and identity which strikes at the heart of the Managerial system and its concern with interchangeability, globalism, and fluidity? A culture which embraces this kind of aesthetic is a true threat to the Managerial order. A people who care about presenting themselves in this way are a people who care about who they are, where they come from, and by extension, where they are going.
Is our generation so broken, isolated, and severed from our past that we cannot achieve an aesthetic of continuity with our past? This is very possible. It might not be possible for us to conceive of a way of presenting ourselves that would be recognizable to our ancestors and descendants. Some things are just so broken that they are impossible to mend. It is possible that this will seem very inauthentic to us, and that it will feel like LARPing. Nevertheless, if we fail to proceed in this path, we are merely passing the burden on to our children’s generations. The price we pay in our internal sense of inauthenticity is worth paying in order to leave a better model for life for our children. We are not Baby Boomers, we will not eat the seed corn that our ancestors stored up, and we have a moral responsibility to leave behind more than we received. Since many of us received nothing at all from our Boomer predecessors, that moral duty is accentuated. It is our duty to build the culture and the identity that yearns to express itself on its own terms, against the Managerial system that suppresses us. Our aesthetic is ourselves, and it is by knowing ourselves, who we are, where we came from, who our ancestors were, who their God is, that we can finally reveal ourselves in truth to the world in our aesthetic.
For Further Reading
For those interested in more information on people Mabry referenced, see the links below.
On Curtis Yarvin:
Jake Siegel/The Tablet: The Red-Pill Prince
The Worthy House: On the “Dark Enlightenment,” and of Curtis Yarvin / Mencius Moldbug
On William S. Lind
Lind is a military historian often classified as a paleoconservative. He has written for the American Conservative and elsewhere. I, Aaron, will be discussing his concept of “4th Generation War” in a future newsletter
Catherine Yang/The Epoch Times: Retroculture: Inside the Movement That’s Reviving Tradition
On Yukio Mishima
Wikipedia: Yukio Mishima
There’s a Hollywood film: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Become a Subscriber Today
One of my guiding principles is to provide original perspectives and insights you can’t get anywhere else. This essay is another example of that. Whether or not you agree with every aspect of what I publish, I hope you will find the material thought provoking and helpful as you navigate this new 21st century world we live in.
Sustaining serious, substantive work in a social media area that rewards provocation, apocalyptic rhetoric, etc. is a challenge. Are you someone who would like to see more serious and thoughtful discussion online? Then please consider becoming a Subscriber today. In addition to helping to sustain my work, you will also get exclusive content, podcast and interview transcripts, commenting privileges, and access to my Subscriber knowledge base.
This new little man seems to have no firm roots, no sure loyalties to sustain his life and give it a center. He is not aware of having any history, his past being as brief as it is unheroic; he has lived through no golden ages he can recall in time of trouble. Perhaps because he does not know where he is going, he is in a frantic hurry; perhaps because he does not know what frightens him, he is paralyzed with fear. This is especially a feature of his political life, where the paralysis results in the most profound apathy of modern times.
The uneasiness, the malaise of our time, is due to this root fact: in our politics and economy, in family life and religion – in practically every sphere of our existence – the certainties of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have disintegrated or been destroyed and, at the same time, no new sanctions of justifications for the new routines we live, and must live, have taken hold. So there is no acceptance and there is no rejection, no sweeping hope and no sweeping rebellion. There is no plan of life. Among white-collar people, the malaise is deeply rooted; for the absence of any order of belief has left them morally defenseless as individuals and politically impotent as a group. Newly created in a harsh time of creation, white-collar man has no culture to lean upon except the contents of a mass society that has shaped him and seeks to manipulate him to its alien ends. For security’s sake, he must strain to attach himself somewhere, but no communities or organizations seem to be thoroughly his. This isolated position makes him excellent material for synthetic molding at the hands of popular culture – print, film, radio, and television. As a metropolitan dweller, he is especially open to the focused onslaught of all the manufactured loyalties and distractions that are contrived and urgently pressed upon those who live in worlds they never made.
In the case of the white-collar man, the alienation of the wage-worker from the products of his work is carried one step nearer to its Kafka-like completion. The salaried employee does not make anything, although he may handle much that he greatly desires but may not have. No product of craftsmanship can be his to contemplate with pleasure as it is being created and after it is made. Being alienated from any product of his labor, and going year after year through the same paper routine, he turns his leisure and all the more frenziedly to the ersatz diversion that is sold him, and partakes of the synthetic excitement that neither eases nor relaxes. He is bored at work and restless at play, and this terrible alternation wears him out… Estranged from community and society in a context of distrust and manipulation; alienated from work and , on the personality market, from self; expropriated of individual rationality, and politically apathetic – these are the new little people, the unwilling vanguard of modern society.
- C. Wright Mills, White Collar (1951)