INTERVIEW: Justin Murphy #WeirdPoliticalTheory

Justin Murphy

For the past several months, I’ve been drawn to a cluster of Twitter users who employ the #CaveTwitter hashtag, which has led me down a rabbit hole of some of the funniest, strangest, and smartest discussions in social media. “Weird Political Theory” might be the most apt descriptor for this particular corner of online life, where accelerationism, Nick Land, xenofeminism, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, and hypermodernity are just a few of the topics under consideration at any given moment. 

One of the most engaging members of this obscure enclave is a brilliant political scientist named Justin Murphy –whose work has been acknowledged by Steven Pinker, Vox.com, and many others — and whose thought experiments have incurred the wrath of Babe.net

Justin recently took the time to answer a few of my questions about his work and about weird politics in general.

— MC


Q: You recently conducted an interesting study whose results probably surprised some people. Essentially, the data you’ve looked at seems to suggest that “radical leftists” and/or “the far left” are not necessarily the threat to free speech they are often portrayed as; rather, the problem free speech runs into is more complex and defies over-simplification. Can you elaborate on your findings a bit?

A: Of all the research I’ve done over the past year, and all the blog posts I’ve written, I think this is my one big “discovery” that runs counter to the PC or “SJW” Left and also the “pro-free speech”/Intellectual Dark Web” milieu. I suspect that this is why, although that study of mine has been widely read and shared, the main insight hasn’t really taken on. The real upshot of that research (and my other research on the ideological distributions of Internet subcultures such as that around Jordan Peterson and also Kekistan) is: the real source of pathology in the contemporary left is not extreme leftism, it’s something other than leftism that’s entered the leftist sociological milieu.

If you listen to any of the Intellectual Dark Web folks, you’ll catch them speaking as if the problems of PC/SJWism are caused by the radical or extreme left wing of contemporary leftism. You see this most clearly in their repeated calls for the rational or reasonable or moderate left to rein in the insanity of the radical or far left. I now believe that this is basically wrong and it really misunderstands what is going on. The data suggest to me that the PC/SJW left are most likely center-left people, but high on some other variable that is simply not leftism.

More research is needed to figure out what exactly that dimension is, but I think it’s plausible to think of it as something like authoritarianism or something like that. If there’s a prescription here, it’s more likely to be that the genuine radical leftists — people who are extremely open-minded, relatively unbothered by a diversity of viewpoints, including possibly racist ones, as you see in the top left facet of my graph in the blog post — should rein in or push out these merely center-left authoritarians! Almost nobody talking about these issues right now understands this, but that’s what the data looked like to me.

This interpretation is also consistent with my other research, which finds that supposedly “alt-right” subcultures have substantial number of leftists in them. In my model, this makes sense, because these leftists are driven out of the leftist sociological milieu by center-left authoritarians.


Q: One of the things that fascinates me about Twitter is that there are some obscure and maybe alien ideas lurking in the shadows — whether it’s #CaveTwitter or neoreactionaries or accelerationism or patchwork — I never fully understand much of these discussions, to be honest; the language is often impenetrable (maybe by design?) — but I understand just enough that I often end up going down a late-night Twitter rabbit hole. You seem to have a good grasp of what’s going on in these strange worlds. So I have to ask: What is going on in these strange worlds?

A: Well, the truth is I also have a very hard time keeping up with what I call “Weird Theory Twitter.” There’s a lot of genuine and creative intellectual activity no doubt, there’s also a hearty amount of noise as well, just as there is in all domains. In fact, this is exactly why I started doing livestreams on YouTube with figures from Weird Theory Twitter, because it’s really hard to grok what all the little camps are really saying — and it’s also hard to know what’s really worth giving your attention to — by reading Twitter feeds and blog posts. You could spend hours browsing and still not really understand what’s signaling, what’s noise, and what the signals even mean.

But there’s absolutely serious signal coming from these underground spaces, and I know because I’ve had the good fortune of building some relationships with some people, so my idea was to have a little recurring YouTube show or whatever, where listeners can sniff people out and get the basic gist of their viewpoint in one sitting.

Live conversation can tell you way more about someone and their project, way more efficiently, than almost any other format. So not to plug my own stuff, but in all honesty if you want to know what different people in these spaces think, you could do much worse than subscribe to my channel, since that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to do! If you or anyone else really wants to understand better some obscure corner of the intellectual Internet that I have not looked into yet, just let me know

To try to actually answer your question, though, about what I think is going on in these strange worlds…First, intellectual prestige economies are collapsing. If you’re a smart person who reads a lot and can form complex ideas, and you have any drive to do so, the expected value of biding your time and climbing the ranks of academia or journalism is approaching zero. In fact it’s probably becoming negative, because of the time and energy you waste over years of trying to gain a foothold in these domains. For what? Academics have never been more mistrusted, and for good reason, given increasingly obvious left-wing bias in the social sciences and humanities.

And [as] it’s more and more competitive to break into today’s prestige platforms, at the same time the jobs are less and less conducive to an actual intellectual life. I know this from personal experience, because I spent the past eight years of my life being a well-behaved respectable young social scientist; and I succeeded! I did everything right, and I was very lucky, and now I have a permanent position at a research university – and it fucking blows!

I mean my colleagues are cool for the most part, but it’s not very different than a corporate office job. It might be worse, because everyone pretends they’re totally not working a corporate office job and everyone is dedicated to seeking the truth. Yeah right. I think the same is true of other intellectual or writing-based fields like journalism, where you’re trying to be a creative intellectual but actually you have to spend most of your thinking power on making sure that you’re liked by Ezra Klein or whoever. The only reason it ever made sense to fight for a spot in these prestigious hierarchies is because, historically, once you got there it would be pretty cushy and you were relatively free to have a relaxed life and write or work on what you want. Now that they’re hyper-competitive and extremely un-free, it makes perfect sense that smart people who want to work on ideas just go straight to blogging and Twitter and such.

That’s why I think you’re seeing this extraordinary proliferation of strange micro-ideologies; there’s no longer anything to be gained by squeezing your brain into respectable opinion…I think we’re still only at the beginning of this process in which prestige intellectual platforms will continue to collapse and a bewildering number of diverse independent intellectuals will gain their own substantial audiences.

I think that academics look at this and they think, “okay sure, you can have a blog and YouTube and all that and even have a large enough audience to support you financially, but you’re never gonna have a long-term impact on the culture. Nobody serious is going to take you seriously. If you want to really change the way people think, and be remembered, you have to work to enter the Canon, which you can only do via prestige competition.”

And I’ve thought long and hard about this because I’m a terrible narcissist and I’ve always been motivated by an awful will to power, you know — I want to be read in a hundred years, etc. And I now believe this common viewpoint among prestige intellectuals is just false, and this is why the accelerationist themes around fragmentation are really crucial: there no longer is one Canon, and it’s impossible to see how it could ever be re-composed.

There will only be increasingly fragmented forks of the Canon, and a diversity of decentralized autonomous communities will evolve their own standards of value and selection mechanisms for canonization. This is one thing that I really think most prestige intellectuals are really failing to observe. So basically I think smart people with interesting ideas are realizing this, if only subconsciously, and they are realizing it’s quite worth it to invest a lot of time and energy in getting your ideas out there exactly as you please, because if you’re good at it, communities will emerge; and if you’re really good at it, you have a decent chance at being really widely read, at least within one patch of the new fragmented world. Someone like Moldbug is a superb example, Scott Alexander is another, and also a large number of lesser-known but still substantially well-followed individuals.


Q: You just published a quantitative estimation of the virtual place known as “Kekistan.” What are some of your main takeaways from this analysis?

A: The main takeaway of my analysis is that supposedly “alt-right” subcultures are not even all right-wing. They tend to house nontrivial numbers of genuine leftists who have left the sociological milieu of leftism currently dominated by center-left authoritarians. Kekistan is definitely a strongly right-leaning place, but the idea that there are left-wing people hanging out in those places is almost universally unacknowledged by writers discussing the “alt-right.”  The same holds true of Jordan Peterson‘s followers, which I’ve also demonstrated, and I am pretty certain that same also holds true of Gamergate. There is some survey data floating around but I’ve not yet analyzed it, that’s what my next project is. At some point I will probably try to put all of the studies into some sort of book-length statement on the matter.


Q: People really seem to hate each other these days… In your work, have you run upon any indicators that things will get better? Or is society going to continue to fracture along ideological lines?

A: Predictions about the future are always a fool’s errand, but with that caveat, my money is definitely on indefinite fragmentation. I have a little skin in the game given that I’ve shifted the lion’s share of my time and energy away from academic work to developing a serious anti-institutional project online; in that sense I have substantially shifted my investment portfolio away from the center and toward the constitution of a secessionist cultural patch.

But for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to believe that fragmentation is better — at least for those who are relatively well-calibrated to objective reality. More and more people will cut loose from that which they have traditionally been forced to endure, and eventually we might become so separated in alternative realities, that we become less and less bothered by the others.

I had this funny thought the other day that, if one day Trump or the DSA or whoever tried to impose martial law in the interest of some centralizing, unifying project (with a right-wing or left-wing flavor), it might fail for the simple reason that the federal government wouldn’t have enough followers on the thousand-and-one different communication platforms that different parts of the population spend all their time in. Like martial law wouldn’t work because nobody has ever chosen to subscribe to the federal government’s livestreams on Twitch (in part because most people in the federal government literally don’t even know what Twitch is). Large-scale atrocities become impossible simply because attention is so deeply and widely segmented. At the same time, all of these diverse cultural patches evolve their own internal management structures to ensure effective governance most suited to their temperaments and goals and affinities, etc. I don’t think that this is an implausible model of how patchwork might be becoming a reality, and I don’t think it’s all bad.


Q: What other major projects are you working on right now?

A: My main project right now, for the summer, is I’m shopping a book to literary agents. We’ll see how that goes, but to be honest I’m having so much fun going wild with blogging and livestreams and podcasts and such, that I can’t help but think about making a grand break for absolute and “extremely online” independence. It’s funny because I have enough book ideas and enough notes and unpublished blog post drafts on my hard drive that — in all the time I’ve taken to make a super-detailed, polished and prestigious 25-page book proposal, and draft query emails and all that — I probably could have already written and published two books.

When I connect this kind of observation with what I was saying about the collapse of prestige economies, I become more and more convinced that it’s not only more liberating to go all in on “the outside” but might even be more practical and effective even from the vulgar instrumental sense of money and influence over time. Intellectually, I think I actually believe this — but I guess I remain sufficiently socialized in academic prestige culture that I feel the need to try my luck with prestige agents first. Trying to win a good agent makes me feel a bit like what they call a “cuck,” but self-publishing right now would make me feel like I’m selling myself short, so whatever, each of these contradictory feelings is its own ideological conditioning…

I have a decent income as an academic so I’ve never wanted or needed to worry about monetization or the financial sustainability of my ongoing projects, but I’m starting to get heat from my employer, so it feels like sooner or later I will have to choose to continue as a legitimated respectable scholar or go all-in on the outside. I’m currently having some private exchanges with people who have been most engaged with my work, about if/when/how I might develop a monetization model.

A kind of dream vision that has been brewing in my mind for some time is to develop a new type of academic/intellectual life model: a disciplined and high-level but “web-only” academic/intellectual who does advanced and original intellectual work, as well as more fun secondary content flowing down from the original research, while getting paid directly from consumers (of the fun stuff) and “investors” (who want to short the Academy and prove the viability of genuinely independent scholarship). The main examples you have right now are prestige intellectuals who become famous through media and then monetize their fame (e.g., Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, etc). What we’ve not seen quite yet is a young and so-far-successful prestige academic, who is not already famous on the outside, navigate a transition to a web-only model.

If I or someone similar to me could figure this out, I think it would be a massive and new milestone toward the collapse of the higher education system as we know it, because substantially larger numbers of academics would see that it’s possible and desirable to defect from the institutions even without the good luck of some fame or media spectacle to capitalize on. In some sense, my current project is trying to figure out the underlying reality of this wild, still under-explored option space. For now my intention is just to spend the summer going as hard as I can on the outside, and see how things feel and look when the semester starts back up.

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