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The return of Spencerian liberalism

Richard Hanania is a figure of fun for many, but he represents a broader return to liberalism’s sinister origins

Artillery Row

Richard Hanania has long been a provocateur, alienating not only progressive liberals but religious conservatives with his techno-optimist, libertarian and materialist worldview. Despite and perhaps because of this, he’s been a successful commentator and think-tanker. Though a less prominent figure than frontline culture warriors like Peterson and Tate, he has a substantial and influential following, with powerful fans in Silicon Valley. Clever and almost wilfully blind to the potential for offence, his particular brand of anti-empathic writing has a clear appeal to the world of dissident rationalists – a similar sort of market to controversialists like Aella, the rationalistic, polyamorous, Silicon Valley sex worker whose gratuitously shocking thought experiments (which include themes like cannibalism, orgies, pedophilia, rape and necrophilia) are matters of internet legend.  

Hanania moved from controversialist to full on controversy with revelations that he had previously written for far right publications under a pseudonym. According to an expose in the Huffington Post, he “identified himself as a ‘race realist’”, “expressed support for eugenics and the forced sterilisation of ‘low IQ’ people” and opposed “miscegenation” and “race-mixing.” 

In a Substack post entitled “Why I Used to Suck, and (Hopefully) No Longer Do” Hanania confessed he had been “racist”, but that he now repudiated his former opinions as “repulsive”. He admitted he was an angry and disturbed young man, and had grown up, seen the facts didn’t support his prejudices, and now speaks out against white nationalism and the far right. His point about needing to let people be forgiven and change their views positively rather than being forever outcast is well taken, but many questioned his sincerity and whether his views had really changed all that much. 

Furious denunciations echoed in the US media, and claims that Hanania had exposed his real, sinister face in those old anonymous pieces flew thick and fast online. But I’m unconvinced. I think the real Hanania is the one we’re getting right now, and that the youthful flirtation with white nationalism was just an edgy developmental phase. But I don’t think his “journey to small l-liberalism” is necessarily a redemptive journey. Hanania 2.0 is not only equally sinister, but in some ways vastly more dangerous; because his new ideas, unlike those held by David Duke wannabes, might actually be the shape of things to come. 

What does he believe? In a recent post, he branded himself a “Nietzschean liberal”, who thinks that, quote:

  1. Just as intelligence, a moral sense, aesthetic appreciation, and other factors place humans above animals, some humans are in a very deep sense better than other humans.
  2. Society disproportionately benefits from the scientific and artistic genius of a select few. An important goal of government and public policy is to channel their energies in productive directions and leave them free to pursue their missions.
  3. As confirmed by modern behavioural genetics, heredity is the dominant force behind human variation.
  4. Egalitarian ideology and concerns over what is called “social justice” are primarily driven by ugly instincts, namely envy and feelings of inferiority.
  5. While all rational beings must be utilitarians to some degree, everyone has non-utilitarian commitments. The best ones put an emphasis on beauty, freedom, and progress, rather than pleasing supernatural beings, fealty to some “natural” order, the glorification of imagined communities like nations, or equality of outcomes.

More than just Ayn Rand for the tech bro generation, Hanania advocates a dark futurism in which the disruption and division of America along ethnic and partisan lines will bring about the covert rule of an all-wise global capitalism. Where once he denounced mass migration, he now embraces its potential to undermine social solidarity and reduce trust in the government, thus leaving America too divided to enact social welfare, or hold back the full-scale implementation of a transhumanist programme of genetic manipulation, cybernetics and AI. 

Hanania’s vision is not new, but a revival of one of the most powerful tendencies in the development of liberal thought, though it has been since forgotten and safely reassigned to fascism. 19th century liberalism, especially in England, was often libertarian in nature, yet married to an emergent materialist economics rooted in biological science. Under the influence of thinkers like Adam Smith and Malthus, rationalistic liberals were often hostile to government attempts to relieve poverty or address humanitarian disasters. Malthus especially turned sharply away from the emphasis on sociability and virtue still evident in an earlier generation of English political philosophers, laying out a brutal economistic vision of populations annihilated by material necessity. 

In the most infamous example of this policy, liberals opposed attempts to relieve the Irish potato famine, contributing to what some historians estimate as many as a million deaths by starvation. Robert Peel, a reforming Tory prime minister who sought to improve the conditions of workers, expand healthcare, and emancipate Catholics, was ousted following his early and partially successful attempts to relieve the crisis by shipping corn to Ireland from America and repealing the Corn Laws which hindered the private importation of grain. Peel’s administration was replaced by a Whig government committed to a laissez faire economics that saw Irish grain exported to England even as hundreds of thousands starved. 

Charles Trevelyan, an evangelical Christian and a student of Malthus, was in charge of famine relief, and combined brutal eugenic economics with a belief in the hand of providence, calling the famine  “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” and “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”. The British Empire was sometimes at its ugliest when at its most “liberal”, and whilst it wouldn’t deign to endorse the slaughter of a population by the sword, it would cheerfully countenance the indirect starvation of an entire people under the rule of the gloomy science. 

As the famine was still raging, Herbert Spencer was writing Social Statics, which applied Lamarkian evolutionary theory to societies as well as species. Spencer argued in similar terms to Trevelyan that, “The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many ‘in shallows and in miseries,’ are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.” Spencer’s thought would later be called “Social Darwinism” and form the basis of eugenic thinking and policy across the Western world. 

A secularised Calvinistic theology, already visible in Hobbes, looms large in this new liberal political economy. The market, the invisible hand of providence, or its materialistic equivalent, Darwinian natural selection, determines who lives and who dies. In each case there is an elect — pre-ordained to live lives visibly blessed with the fruits of their inherent worthiness — whilst the unrighteous meet the sort of miserable fates they are destined by nature to deserve. Far from this worldview being backed by the forces of conservatism or reaction, it was profoundly linked to liberal and “progressive” politics and economics, whilst state aid to the poor was identified with paternalistic High Anglican Toryism. As late as the Second World War, Spencerian thinking was used to justify the mass sterilisation of the “unfit” who ranged from the severely disabled to criminals to the merely poor, a policy that whilst narrowly rejected in Britain, was enacted in America, Sweden and many other liberal democracies. Even civil liberties themselves were often framed in Darwinian market terms, as with famous US jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, who coined the term “the marketplace of ideas” to defend his radically permissive views on free speech, and whose theory of jurisprudence has been described as rooted in “Darwinian evolution and classical pragmatism.” 

World War II saw Darwinian language, and eugenic policies, fall out of favour. Not only had political leaders seen the horrific extremes to which Social Darwinism could lead, but the rise of Christian Democracy saw a rapprochement between liberal democracy and Christian humanism. In Britain this took the form of the Malvern Conference, in which leading Christians like Archbishop William Temple, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T.S. Eliot participated. The conference called for a recentering of political life away from materialist economics and towards the dignity of citizen and worker. 

But as the social gains of this extraordinary era, lasting from the 1940s-70s, are eroded with inequality and poverty again soaring in Western countries, the political and ethical certainties of the post war era are fast disappearing too. Digital and biological technologies have reopened dreams of regulating human populations in a way that had been apparently foreclosed after the War. 

Whilst much of the Left is hysterically vigilant to the threat of a return of fascism, they have proved either indifferent or actively collaborative in the face of Spencerian liberal eugenics. In Canada and the Netherlands, legalised euthanasia, initially sold as an option for the terminally ill, has been expanded to encompass the mentally ill, drug addicts and the homeless. These killings are “voluntary”, and so pass contractualist liberal muster. So what if desperate, isolated people not in their right mind can be murdered on request? It’s their choice, and who are we to judge? 

Richard Hanania’s open embrace of “technologies like IVF, surrogacy, embryo selection, and hopefully even artificial wombs and genetic engineering” as a solution to Western crisis in the “quantity and quality of births” is straightforward eugenics. He sees liberal democracy as the best mechanism for this (having abandoned his hopes that China would act as an enlightened despotism): “The best case scenario seems to be a government that is so enfeebled or distracted by trivialities that it simply takes a hands-off approach and lets market forces do their work without it noticing what is going on.” 

For him, liberal democracy is not a virtuous cohesive political community, or even a framework for allowing such communities, but rather a mechanism for preventing such communities existing. As he succinctly puts it in one headline: “Immigration destroys social cohesion. Good.” Though you might think “race realist” Hanania would oppose mass migration, in fact he favours the divisions and racial tensions it brings as bringing about a more socially Darwinian and free market society. 

Why should we care what one eccentric commentator thinks? Well, a major part of that audience are Silicon Valley billionaires: venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has been on his podcast. David Sacks, an associate of Elon Musk, endorsed his book, as did Peter Thiel. His think tank has received over $700,000 from anonymous donors. Evidently, there is a covert constituency for what Hanania is saying openly. 

Armed with powerful technologies of informational control and manipulation, Silicon Valley is driving a dystopian politics that destroys communities, the dignity and solidarity of work, and the integrity of families. Brick and mortar stores are shuttered, employees are commanded and monitored by apps, and human relations are distorted and mediated by social media and dating apps into a vicious competitive marketplace. The “improvement” of human beings in this context is really a transfer of our last intimate powers into the hands of technocratic managers who are, in occult manner, able to dip their unclean hands into the inmost secrets of our biology. 

Hanania is a salutary warning to conservatives seduced by theories of “race realism” and hereditary determinism. Theories that divide the political community and elevate biology above culture ultimately serve manipulators, capitalists and technocrats, not nations, religions or communities. Left liberals are casually dismissing Hanania as a white nationalist, but they fail to see the dangerous overlap of his politics with much of modern progressivism. The doctrine of individual autonomy that now dominates left wing politics is irrevocably allied to a sinister materialist politics of struggle, competition and social darwinism. Liberals will find themselves endorsing the destruction of the very “marginalised” lives they thought they were saving, conservatives will find themselves agents of globalisation and social atomism. Only by returning to an anti-reductionist, non-materialist politics of religious humanism, social solidarity and the dignity of the person can we resist falling into the trap. 

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