Entertainment

08.01.14

Occupying the Throne: Justine Tunney, Neoreactionaries, and the New 1%

Google software engineer Justine Tunney was never against the one percent—she just thought that the one percent were the wrong people.

How do you go from far-left socialist to far-right monarchist in three years?

How do you go from, in 2011, marching in self-declared solidarity with the “99 Percent” holding a banner saying “Give Class War A Chance” to, in 2014, tweeting that liberalism is “Truly one of the worst ideas ever,” calling for a return to aristocracy with techies as the aristocrats and saying the solution to the unemployment crisis is to bring back chattel slavery?

You wouldn’t think it was possible. But Google software engineer Justine Tunney did exactly that.

Most people who’ve heard Justine Tunney’s name at all know her from one of the brief, embarrassing post-Occupy debacles that thrust Occupy Wall Street back in the news this year. As a leader in “Tech Ops” for Occupy, she’d created the @OccupyWallSt Twitter account and OccupyWallSt.org website. In February 2014 she made headlines by unexpectedly reactivating these dormant assets and changing all the passwords on them, hijacking them as a platform for her to broadcast her personal grievances. She blasted LSE professor David Graeber for stealing credit for Occupy—a bold attack, for someone literally tweeting in the first person as @OccupyWallSt. She accused the Occupy movement as a whole of emotionally abusing her for the past three years and of being rampantly transphobic (Tunney is transgender).

Then it got weirder. Tunney’s rants shifted from being against the Occupy movement as a failure of left-wing activism to being against the Left itself. She posted a Storify claiming that the tech industry, as a whole, were “the true progressives” and that the Left were actually “reactionaries” because of negative news stories coming out criticizing the Bay Area tech elite.

As someone who doesn’t know Tunney but had been tangentially involved with the Occupiers in DC, I found her emergence surprising, but not shocking. “Leaderless” activist movements have a tendency to attract self-appointed leaders, and anyone who’s been to a highly activist college like Swarthmore is familiar with the cloud of drama that tends to follow self-appointed leaders.

But I didn’t really get hooked into this story until, in April, she tweeted “Read Mencius Moldbug.”

For the unenlightened, “Mencius Moldbug” is the pen name of Curtis Yarvin, an Internet denizen who created a faux-intellectual movement that stands against modernity in all its forms—based openly on the crankish writings of Julius Evola, 20th century Italian author of Revolt Against the Modern World who was too right-wing for Mussolini. Yarvin earnestly believed that the best thing for the human race was the abolition of democracy and egalitarianism and the reinstatement of social hierarchy.

He wrote about this at very great length, becoming a darling of various Internet personalities—mostly white, mostly male, mostly tech geeks—with a chip on their shoulder against one facet of the modern world or another. Bound together by a common understanding that the superior should rule over the inferior and the concept of equal rights is a mistake, these guys call themselves “neoreactionaries,” and the erstwhile “co-founder of Occupy Wall Street” has apparently found them a warmer home than the Left.

I’ve known who Moldbug was since he was just starting his career of intellectual trolling, showing up as a gadfly on the blog of one of my intellectual heroes, my former professor Tim Burke, to bravely defend South African apartheid against its detractors, just to give you an idea.

I’ve known about the “neoreactionaries” a lot longer, before they were given that name—back when they were just teenagers on the Internet, like me, furious that there were people less intelligent than us who dared tell us what to do.

I never bought into the ideology fully, but I understand its appeal. The vast majority of nerds don’t take it as far as neoreactionaries and decide every single thing about the pre-modern world—hereditary aristocracy, racism, sexism, the whole shebang—needs to come back.

Mostly what you get is people who vaguely identify as “libertarians” who dislike “political correctness” and being forced to pay taxes. And the vast majority of annoying Slashdot libertarians who campaigned for Ron Paul and against Obamacare have no idea who Moldbug is, and the ones who are aware of him tend to be decent enough to get turned off once the defenses of white supremacism begin.

But every social trend has its extremist leading edge. Most libertarians I know are not racists, but libertarian icon Ron Paul certainly had more than his fair share of pandering to racists when building his political base, and the pot-smoking free-love libertarians of Silicon Valley are often unaware how reactionary their political bedfellows are.

Every time a community springs up supposedly based only on mocking the “excesses” of “Tumblr activists,” the moderates who are in it just to make fun of the feminists or anti-racists who are “actually crazy” find themselves joined by “redpillers” (i.e. men’s rights activists) and advocates of “human biodiversity” (a coy euphemism for scientific racism and eugenics).

Living in the modern world is hard. Trying to be a decent person in a diverse, pluralistic society takes work, and there will inevitably be missteps along the way. All of us across the political spectrum believe that democracy has problems, the government has problems, “political correctness” has problems. But even in its most innocent form, as comedian Stewart Lee brilliantly observes, a dislike of “political correctness” and the modern world can take you to some very ugly places very fast—the past was, as only some of us have the privilege of forgetting, a very ugly place.

And the convergence of MRAs angry at feminism and HBD advocates angry at immigration and diversity and libertarians angry at the undeserving poor leeching off of their wealth, the dark heart of the seedy underbelly of the Internet, now has a face and a name. They gleefully call themselves the Dark Enlightenment and give themselves names cribbed from Lovecraftian monsters and revel in adopting as doctrine everything the modern world calls evil.

It’s obnoxious Internet troll contrarianism taken to the nth degree, and it’d be funny if it weren’t scary. It’d be easy to ignore them if the multi-tentacled octopus of the movement didn’t claim as its own the ex-CTO of Business Insider, if their talking points didn’t show up in speeches at Valley “startup schools,” if the men’s rights agenda they champion didn’t end up leading to the occasional mass murder.

And then there’s Justine Tunney, “co-founder of Occupy,” proud Google employee and self-declared defender of the tech elite.

Tunney does not just flirt with neoreactionary ideology, the way self-congratulatory “open-minded iconoclasts” like me did in high school and college. She goes full throttle in her embrace of it, doubles down on it, rejects every “politically correct” rejection of sexism or racism or classism that define the modern world.

She makes bold statements that IQ, law-abiding or -breaking tendencies and political alignment are all genetically determined. That Silicon Valley is moving away from capitalism toward feudalism, with tech CEOs as feudal lords, and this is a good thing. And, in the biggest headline-maker, she submitted a Change.org petition that President Obama should step down and appoint Eric Schmidt as unelected CEO of America, because Google is clearly better run than the government.

On some level, yes, this is just one individual story of crankery. Like many young activists, Tunney took on an unpaid volunteer role in a movement she thought would change the world, got burned out and upset with her fellow activists, and ended up spitefully turning on everything she once stood for. Like many outsized Internet personalities, she thrives on negative attention and is probably intentionally exaggerating her beliefs for clicks.

But Justine Tunney is not just an isolated anomaly. She’s the leading, crankish edge of a broad cultural trend. Justine Tunney is a troll, sure, and she’s not successful enough an example of her class to have lawyers and PR people to tell her to shut up. What that means is she’s willing to express, out loud and in public, what a lot of techies privately think.

It’s obnoxious Internet troll contrarianism taken to the nth degree, and it’d be funny if it weren’t scary.

“Mencius Moldbug” slowed down the writing to a trickle and returned to relative obscurity in 2013. Most people have never heard of him or his movement, including apparently the editors at Valleywag and Daily Dot when they speculated that Justine Tunney might just be doing Onion-esque satire.

But much like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism was a weird college cult among reactionary anti-hippies in the 1960s only to end up dictating the policy of the Federal Reserve, the neoreactionaries have more influence than we’d like to think.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, wrote a famous 2009 essay bemoaning women’s suffrage and saying “I no longer believe freedom and democracy are compatible.” Valley VC Tim Draper, right now, is demanding that the state of California be broken up into six states, so Silicon Valley won’t have to share a government or tax revenue with poor non-techies. And every day we hear another story about a tech company deciding rules don’t apply to them, whether it’s Airbnb and zoning rules or Apple and Google and wage-fixing rules or Aereo and FCC rules.

Nerds tend to talk a big game about standing up for the underdog but, I’m sorry to say, don’t seem to really want a leveling of society, a removal of hierarchies. They bristle against hierarchies of physical strength, of inherited capital, and of “popularity”—but only because those get in the way of a hierarchy of book smarts and technical skill, which is the right and proper hierarchy. The creepy nerd fantasy that remains alive and well in today’s Age of the Nerd Triumphant is not of making peace with the popular kids but taking their throne.

In Tunney’s case, the early warning sign was in January 2014, just before the big Twitter hijacking debacle, when she wrote a blog rant blasting fellow Occupier Justin Wedes for saying that Facebook should be paying dividends to its users—who create all of its actual content, and hence its value—and that they didn’t made them parasitic the same way financiers are on productive companies.

Calling capitalist ownership parasitism is an extreme position, perhaps, but one common enough among Occupiers. What drove Tunney nuts wasn’t the claim that capitalists were parasites but the application of this argument to tech companies. She starts with “This is a very problematic argument to make because it dismisses the labor of software engineers such as myself. Tread carefully if you go there, because you’ll be treading on my pride as a worker,” then goes on to blast Wall Street at length for being monsters and evil but in the same breath defend Mark Zuckerberg as being in a completely different category from the bad kind of capitalist.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and every other creepy company busy turning you into a data point to sell to advertisers—these are, in her words, “the greatest problem solvers in human history,” and to even compare them to those other kinds of rich people is base slander.

This solves the grand mystery, why someone who had such a closeted admiration for hierarchy and power would be a founding member of Occupy in the first place. Tunney was never against the one percent—she just thought that the one percent were the wrong people. The problem was they were tie-wearing investment banker fratboys and didn’t deserve to be on top. Just like in her view government fat cats and Hollywood celebrities and snooty academics don’t deserve to be on top. But tech geeks, with their superhuman ability to manipulate ones and zeroes, do.

This is why, as one of those young millennial whippersnappers who nonetheless identifies with the Old Left more than my own generation, I distrust the message we keep getting about the democratizing power of the Internet and New Media, about how progressive the Millennial Generation is.

I distrust my fellow young nerds. I distrust techies when they bear gifts.

Sure, electronic tools can be used to good ends. So can tools within the financial markets. It’s not any individual tool that’s a problem—it’s that the tools are all part of a deeply hierarchical system. And the people at the top of that system end up thinking they inherently deserve to be there, that they’re better than the rest of us.

There’s one tweet that’s particularly telling from Tunney:

Well, being unpopular because you’re short, or not physically attractive, or a different gender or skin color than people expect—that’s bad. That’s something I agree we should fight against.

Being unpopular because, say, you lock everyone else out of a communal online account because you feel you own it because you set it up? Being unpopular for using your cleverness to skirt regulations and skim huge profits off of other people’s work and other people’s resources? Being unpopular for being a selfish jerk who hurts other people and doesn’t care because you think your technical skill entitles you to immunity from social repercussions?

That’s a whole other kind of unpopularity.

It may be too late for Justine Tunney. But for the rest of us nerds trying to be decent people, that’s a lesson we desperately need to learn.