If you’re a regular in Dissident Right circles, you’ll probably have heard of Curtis Yarvin, also known as Mencius Moldbug, and his idea of the Cathedral as the decentralized system of control which rules the West today. The basic idea is that the media, academia, Hollywood, and that part of the United States government which Moldbug calls “the Blue government” form a decentralized and leaderless network which is the source of all — or most — of our woes. You can find a good summation of the concept here.
The concept of the Cathedral has been criticized before. The most glaring objection has been reduced to the easily digestible meme format. Depending on your preference, you can peruse it in the Ay, Tone format, or read it in Heath Ledger’s dulcet tones as the Joker. Both versions pose a very obvious question: If it’s a Cathedral, why is it full of Jews? Andrew Joyce levels his considerable intellectual heft at criticizing Moldbug’s unwillingness to discuss the Jewish question here, and I consider the Joyce essay to be the most cogent critique of Moldbug’s evasion of the Jewish question. But in this essay, I want to attack the very idea of the Cathedral as nonsensical, at least from the standpoint of reality, while simultaneously exploring a (false) model of reality where it would make sense.
To people who actually read his blog, it is pretty clear that old Moldy uses the term Cathedral to refer to the power center in the West not because he’s trying to let Jews off the hook and slander Christians, but because he’s referring to The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a book which was popular among computer nerds in the late 1990s and 2000s. The book itself is about differences between two open source software production processes, but we’re less interested in that. We’re interested in the Cathedral: Bazaar duality itself.
The ideas that these two terms are meant to evoke are that of centralization and decentralization, of top-down institution and bottom-up emergence. In the cathedral, what the bishop says, goes. In the bazaar, people vote with their dollars. The bazaar is therefore more agile than the cathedral and can better serve the people’s needs, whereas the cathedral is where stodgy old men in outdated robes talk about abstractions and other matters which have no relation to reality. You’ve heard this song and dance before; libertarians in particular love to repeat it (and we should never forget, Moldbug was and still is a libertarian, no matter what else he may claim).
Of course, this image of the bazaar being a consensus of private actors is rather romanticized and probably comes from people who’ve never seen a bazaar or souk-style marketplace, much less traded in it. As someone who comes from a country with a bazaar tradition, I can affirm that bazaars are rarely a product of spontaneity, or indeed, decentralization. They depend on sovereigns: historically sultans and city-states, while these days they tend to rely on the local government for their security, standardization of weights and measures, and for providing the marketplace itself, as well as access to it.
A market hall or a souk is specifically “the place where trade is done,” and its grandeur, security, and standardization, which all come from the government, specifically attract both traders and purchasers, precisely because they know that this is a place where their goods and money are secure and where they will get a fair deal — on pain of death — and where there is a great variety of goods to choose from and vendors to purchase them from. Once a desert prince or municipal government provides a good marketplace, security or standards, as well as the means to enforce the security and standards, both people and vendors will flock to it, thereby increasing its attraction to even more people and vendors.
Bazaars are also distinctly urban phenomena which historically benefit the elite merchants, the urban elite consumers of luxury products and the sovereigns who collect taxes on the transactions. The king sets up a bazaar and secures trade routes, which allows rich merchants to make expeditions to foreign lands to obtain goods which are then sold to rich people at the bazaar. The same can be said about the stock exchange or Wall Street and the City of London-type institutions; they are in essence a private-public partnership between a select group of people who can permeate the alleged public-private barrier because of their interpersonal relations due to membership in the social class, shared religion or ethnicity, or simply by virtue of the fact of having gone to college together.
Contrast that to churches, which can indeed be bottom-up, or at least more bottom-up than bazaars. The history of Macedonia and other Christian countries in the Balkans abounds with stories of villagers raising a church without any assistance or even direction from the priestly hierarchy, and often the bishop would only learn about the new church once the faithful would summon him to sanctify the completed building. The reason for this is simple: The church is a localized axis mundi, it is a place where the sacred manifests itself in profane reality.
As we know from Mircea Eliade’s work on religious history, religious man needs a sacralized locale and gateway to heaven in order to orient himself in the world. It is a need as essential as food, water, and shelter. Churches in the East in particular, which were often subject to devastation by invading Turks and Mongols, would often be rebuilt by peasants who would choose between their next meal and another brick in the church’s wall. More often than not, the clerical elite, comfortable in their positions as lapdogs to the foreign conquerors and themselves being urban sophisticates, would ignore the peasantry’s spiritual needs. Now, of course I’m not implying there that the Church in its entirety is a bottom-up phenomenon — it is top-down as well — but there are more elements of the Church that are bottom-up than there are of high commerce of the kind usually conducted in bazaars and their modern-day equivalents.
Moldbug’s Cathedral is supposed to be a decentralized and leaderless network, which leads us to question why he would choose the word Cathedral to describe it. A normal cathedral functions strictly hierarchically. The word refers to a church which is the seat of a bishopric — literally. The Latin word cathedra means “chair” and refers to the bishop’s chair. Everyone involved in the cathedral is subordinate to the bishop, who controls the clerics through a strict hierarchy and enforcement of canon law. A cathedral is founded for a specific purpose, and it has a charter, a crest, a flag, a specific mission, and geographical boundaries. It is a very formal institution and one of great dignity — “a bishop on rollerblades wouldn’t be a bishop,” as Nassim Taleb would say. However, the West’s ruling entity in the West is not such an institution. I strongly recommend people read the linked essay by Petr Hampl. It has all of the insights of Moldbug with none of the attendant wankery.
Instead, the West’s ruling entity far more resembles the bazaar as it actually is rather than the never-neverland bazaars of libertarian fantasy. It is an entity of the elite, built by the elite and for the elite. It is “decentralized” in the sense that there’s no single center directing action, but rather multiple competing groups jockeying for power and influence while the controlling center provides the marketplace (institutional framework), the weights and measures (grammar of the dialectic), and protection from bandits and outsiders (censorship and arrest of dissidents). As in the regular bazaar, where the humble customs agent can hide among the opulence of the silk-mongers and spice merchants, so here does the framework controller seem small and drab compared to the pompous professors stroking their luxuriant beards or the faux-intrepid celebrity journalists trying to be Hunter Thompson.
Hence, Moldbug’s notorious conclusion that the world is ruled by professors and journalists. Indeed, if you look at a bazaar, the silk merchant may look very rich, very fat, and wear the finest vestments, but he trembles at the sight of the customs agent: a small, balding drab man in an official uniform whose one word can make the silk merchant’s wealth disappear.
There is still a market, and market dynamics are still applicable, so in that sense, yes, you could say that things are still more or less decentralized because multiple “centers” are competing with each other for power, but this is really no different from courtiers jockeying for the king’s favor. The competition is decentralized because each courtier acts independently of all the other courtiers, but what they’re competing to do is flatter the king and avoid his punishment. Because the king is the fount of all rewards and all punishments, the system is ultimately more centralized than a formalized, top-down organization such as a bishopric.
A bishop may displease the archbishop and lose his position. He may be caught performing egregiously impious acts by the peasants, in which case Macedonian tradition dictates he be dragged out of the church and into the village square, forcibly dry-shaved, and then divested in a literal and violent fashion; his vestments would be literally ripped off by the angry mob. The bishop may annoy the secular authorities, which may lop off his head, burn him alive, or simply have him removed by either the archbishop or the peasants (depending on how badly he annoyed the authorities). A bishop therefore has to be very careful not to egregiously annoy at least three power centers and strike a careful balance between them. By contrast, a high financier or rich merchant needs only please one center: the framework controller (sovereign). The age of “too big to fail” means that companies no longer need to please their customers. All they have to be is in with the “it crowd.”
So, the question here arises: Why use the term Cathedral to refer to an entity which is very obviously a bazaar, or a king’s court full of flattering courtiers (they’re the same thing)? Why go to all the trouble of trying to prove that something is decentralized when it very obviously orbits a center and we can very easily deduce this center, not only because of gravitational waves in the accretion disk (market movements in the bazaar) but also because it is plainly written in black-and-white in the bazaar’s charter?
The two reasons I can think of are the following:
- Moldbug is just another dumb libertarian who believes in spontaneous order, in which case his philosophy is dangerous nonsense because it’s filled with half-truths, trying to jam Italian elite theory into libertariansim’s crooked framework.
- Moldbug is deliberately obscuring the nature, composition, and existence of the center for reasons known to himself, in which case his philosophy is engineered dangerous nonsense.
Personally, I think that option 2 is likelier, given the man’s familial pedigree of service to the nastiest bits of the US government. It’d also do him and his friends in Silicon Valley, as well as their patrons in the US government, well to conceal the center around which the bazaar-constellation orbits. Like the devil, they too would like to convince the world that they do not exist, or at least that they really are as powerless as the drab, balding customs officer who could ruin the merchants with a snap of his fingers. Or maybe he really believes the libertarian bullshit, as do a majority of the people in Information Technology; I wouldn’t be surprised if the bosses and employees of Silicon Valley’s gigacorporations really do think they’re courageous entrepreneurs bringing about whatever Randian fantasy, even as they survive on defense/intel contracts and direct government subsidies.
These misconceptions all stem from a very wrongheaded idea about markets and commerce — that somehow they arise “spontaneously” and are not top-down. In reality, there is no such thing as a non-palace economy, as all commercial or productive activities depend on the framework and infrastructure which can only be provided by the sovereign to a degree that liberal economic ideology is loath to admit. Far more than the simple peasant, the high financier and wealthy merchant depend on the king’s whims, his money, his standards, his soldiers and policemen, his courts, his roads, his economic power as a guarantor of their solvency, and his diplomatic clout insofar as they trade abroad. For the most part, they don’t mind this, and in this day and age, where the personnel staffing and running the financial and commercial concerns are the same people as the personnel staffing the sovereign, the state is more or less run for their own benefit. In other words, it is a kind of sovereign corporation of unclear ownership and control — just like Moldy wants it.
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