How Technocratic Hyper-Rationalism Has Birthed Right-Wing Extremism
As a videogame designer who used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m intimately familiar with the sort of asshole who thinks they have a perfect formula for solving the problems that face the world today. I refer to this sort of person as the “boy genius” — someone who makes their career off repackaging old ideas in a new form and marketing themselves as a brilliant new entrepreneur/thinkfluencer with the secret knowledge to transform society. In reality, they’re just presenting the same old cynical capitalism with a fresh coat of paint. Aspiring entrepreneurs like this exist across the Bay Area in many different forms, from all across the tech world to independent game development and beyond, but they are most obviously embodied by celebrity tech industry billionaires like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.
Within the universe of Bay Area startup culture, the Elon Musks are the heroes. They seem to have a broad, sweeping vision of the future. But their true pedigree is measured how they manage to amass massivewealth behind their ideas — their ability to do. They believe they have the necessary tools to game reality. Their thinking is built on top of a hyper-commodified religious devotion to the transformative powers of scientific rationalism and a faith in the sanctity of numbers. This kind of thinking obviously also has a special resonance in the world of videogames, which are made up entirely of rules and systems. But it permeates our culture across many different planes.
Lately their sort of hyper-rationalist thinking has also resulted in some truly bizarre political commentary, like the now-infamous “Trial Balloon For a Coup?” Medium article from several weeks back by Google engineer Yonatan Zunger or the even more infamous “game theory” twitter rant from political strategist Eric Garland.
These math dorks present their cases that they have some sort of keys to unlock the secrets of a highly complex and confusing political realities by crunching the numbers in the right way. Yet unsurprisingly, they are consistently unable to conceive of the truly bizarre and disturbing current reality. The sort of class of technocratic math dorks Zunger or Garland belong to might be able to function within the bubble of Silicon Valley tech culture or the culture of Washington political insiders, but they don’t actually have any insight into what most people in the real world experience and how those things manifest themselves on a broader human scale, because their lives are lived incredibly insulated from these experiences.
It’s so hard for many of these types to face that our reality is now simply governed by the whims of highly paranoid, highly irrational, highly self-destructive rich men partly because the Democrats were powered by these technocrats— who employed their strategies aggressively towards Hillary Clinton’s losing presidential campaign. If the people who conceive of themselves as the master strategists lost, it must be because they lost to an even better strategy. Since both the media and the technocrats got played for fools by people like Bannon or Trump, it gives credence for many of them to aggressively push this narrative.
In reality, men like Steve Bannon are not geniuses at all, they’re just good at being in the right place at the right time and manipulating the landscape around them to gain power. This is the cold reality of the society we live in. But to the technocrats and engineers, there is no such thing as being in the right place at the right time. If you achieve what was previously forecast to be impossible, you must be some sort of master tactician playing 12th dimensional chess with reality. You must have some hidden agenda behind your ridiculous and irrational surface behavior. There is no other conceivable answer.
In the face of events that don’t appear to fit their models, the policy makers and technocrats have doubled down on their beliefs into conspiracy — like a troubling obsession with Russia. There is no acceptance of the possibility that they could not see or did not care how their systems isolated and alienated people from each other and created conditions for radicalization to happen. To them, their systems are perfect. Never mind that their systems are built with no real understanding of power dynamics that exist within society or how systemic oppression manifests itself. Never mind that their systems dehumanize and alienate people.
In the view of the technocrats, their systems are a true level playing field that erase the need for systemic critique. But in reality, the belief in perfectly balanced systems is the driving force behind how neoliberal capitalism engages in the oppression of the people it supposedly serves. When every person’s worth — in terms of cultural value, in terms of job performance, in terms of power in society — is fully defined by measurable outcomes, then it becomes easier to dismiss people who don’t meet favorable outcomes as in some way deficient. If the system is in perfect balance, the complex fields of thought that have emerged out of the long-term human struggles of civil rights, feminist, and LGBT movements must not be the true reality.
This is how reactionary right wing thinking lives harmoniously within the framework provided by hyper-rationalism. Those who are traditionally granted the most power and access in our society — middle class white men — are given the language of hyper-rationalism without any of the awareness or experience to understand the systemic problems facing marginalized groups. The internet media landscape is filled with pundits like Sargon of Akkad who use rationalist and objectivist language to present their sexist, racist opinions as a matter of factual reality. They paint people from oppressed groups as irrational whiners, as people who selfishly abuse and manipulate the system around them — even as genetically deficient — because they have not historically been able to reach the level of measured outcome success as their oppressors within our seemingly objective meritocratic reality. Without the dominance of hyper-rationalist thinking in our culture and the intense social isolation caused by neoliberalism, there is no way for this sort of rhetoric to become so widespread.
Forget artificial intelligence: the alt-right is the true mutant child of our neoliberal technocratic society.
But what have the neoliberal technocrats of our society replaced this total erasure of the language we need to understand power dynamics and systemic oppression with? An obsession with people’s surface behavior. This is not really a coincidence. By defining racism or sexism as merely an embodiment of personal bigotry, we’re able to believe in the monuments of our great myth of cultural growth like Obama, while still simultaneously maintaining systems that continue to brutally oppress and kill people.
Our popular culture has become so steeped in a deeply cynical sort of practicality, where many of us are able recognize the contradictions and hypocrisies of modern society, but we also cynically accept that we can’t really do much of anything about them. The awareness of this incremental progress being largely the result of a long-term collective struggle becomes completely erased and co-opted. By making displays of bigoted behavior as the ultimate embodiment of evil we have a built-in justification for moving selfishly within the system because we’ve displaced our shame of our own cultural complicity with the destruction our way of life causes onto a convenient scapegoat.
This, it turns out, opens the door for people to use bigoted language we have deemed “too far” as a show of power and dominance. People like Milo Yiannopoulos are the end point realization of this thinking — a reality that sustains itself off of a fantasy world completely insulated from any awareness or understanding of the collective struggles of the past. A reality completely nurtured by the self-fulfilling fantasies of hyper-rational objectivism. Instead of technocratic liberals being motivated by some faint glimmer of empathy or awareness for the power struggles of the past and present, the alt-right has come to understand them as simply weak and submissive “beta cucks”, controlled by the irrational manipulations of the deficient. In this view, that’s the only reason the privileged technocrats can’t stay true to the principles of their hyper-rationalist reality.
The point here is that if we accept society is a true perfectly balanced meritocracy, the end result will always be fascism.
But we cannot really demonstrate that Trump, Bannon, or Milo have an actual substantive vision for how to further realize the reality they purport to push. They’re merely more opportunists rebranding old neo-Nazi rhetoric and echoing self-interested cynical capitalism taken to its logical conclusion. Even if the people who supported Trump are aware and don’t care that this manipulation will inevitably effect them negatively as well, they still have a vocabulary and mainstream visibility with which to air their beliefs within now. And we cannot ignore how the rhetoric of and conditions created by technocratic neoliberal capitalism supplied them with this.
Maybe the biggest shock of our current reality is to accept that there is no benevolent parental figure in power that we can appeal to the moral goodness of — that our government has become a horrific carnivalesque smash and grab for the super-rich because it was always oriented towards that direction. The real shock in losing what we thought was a solid underlying narrative governing our society is coming to the acceptance that the horrors that seemed so far away from us were actually there all around us the whole time, being incubated and stoked from within our well-intentioned, well-meaning ranks. The real shock is in accepting that a deftly composed, eloquent and friendly murderer is still a murderer, and only opens the door for bigger, grosser murderers.
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I want to return to talking about videogames for a second.
As someone who witnessed and wrote about the disturbing phenomenon of gamergate as it happened, I’m extremely tired of the way the whole thing has been framed, especially in light of its relationship with helping to form the “alt-right” and ushering in our current era.
The mainstream visibility gamergate inadvertently granted marginalized voices in games launched the careers of whole slew of sometimes highly-dubious “anti-GG” writers and social media brands that cropped up at the time (while a completely different group of extremely dubious gamergate supporters also launched their careers and headed on their career path towards being full-fledged neo-Nazis). My problem with much of the anti-GG writing is it felt largely one-dimensional and exploitative; interested in pointing out the same blindly obvious logical fallacies of gamergaters over and over, but not interested in trying to articulate root causes of the phenomenon.
When much of the larger cultural attention granted to gamergate was driven by victimization of its targets who were then made into martyrs and were either sanctified or sacrificed, there became an immense amount of power behind being victimized. Because of this, some people even pushed themselves to the forefront by driving their own martyrisation as a way to attain hyper-visibility. The narrative was constantly being reframed by people jockeying for power to take advantage of all the wider cultural attention the phenomena had granted. People used it as a way to launch their careers — their careers that were often spent pushing for women or other marginalized people to not be so victimized in broader culture.
I don’t necessarily blame people for doing that. Prior to gamergate, it was hard to get any kind of broader attention to the issues you might face if you were a member of a marginalized group working within games. But I find it honestly incredibly fucked up that something so traumatic for so many people became the primary venue for these issues to permeate into larger culture. There’s a lewd, voyeuristic element to the whole situation — where victimizing yourself is the only way to call attention to victimization. And I’ve become so bored by all the people using that trauma to center their own construction of a reality that has now put them on the front lines on the battle against this new global push rightwards. It’s cheap and it’s self-congratulatory and it’s an over-simplified false narrative.
All the vehement energy invested towards exposing the already plainly obvious contradictions of gamergate and declaring “gamers” as “dead” just meant the larger, more important, and more mundane discussions in Videogame Land that were happening before and could have been aired more openly now fell by the wayside in light of this new, sexy, scary conflict.
And this gets down to what disturbs me the most about the last few years in videogames — if we had maybe tried to look at the root causes and have a discussion about our own complicity in helping right-wing extremist views propagate inside of videogame communities instead of trying to aggressively force the issue to go away as quickly as possible, maybe we would have been able to address it more effectively. If we had used the situation to have a broader discussion about the huge degree of inequality among independent game makers, or the way the game industry as a whole exploits its workers, or how the gaming press functions largely as glorified PR run by fans and has no real role for challenging the industry, or how hyper-masculine power fantasies dominating the industry have directly provided fuel for the the far right extremist worldview, maybe we could have destroyed the momentum of this movement. And maybe it would’ve just popped up somewhere else in the end — but one of the biggest heads on its hydra would have been chopped off. We certainly still wouldn't continue to be in this hyper-vigilant state of denial about acknowledging or addressing its root causes.
When I attend the annual Game Developers Conference next week in San Francisco, I expect a similar degree of hyper-vigilant denial to what I saw at 2015’s conference after six months of gamergate. I expect industry figures to spend their time smugly taking pot shots at easy targets like Milo or Pewdiepie. And I expect more intense denial from people who will point their fingers furiously at all the internet neo-Nazi pundits who were radicalized through gamergate and loudly declare “THIS IS NOT US!”
The problem is, though, is that it IS us.
If those of us who work within the videogame industry want their medium to not be associated with far-right reactionary movements anymore, we have to use our platform to admit to some level of responsibility or complicity for helping create this problem. Games are a natural fit for realizing the self-fulfilling fantasies of hyper-rationalist numbers-based thinking. Games provide fully realized worlds constructed out of hyper-masculine colonialist power fantasies and filled with racist and sexist caricatures. Games, in general, give a great amount of power to deeply troubling and oversimplified narratives.
All of this disturbs me because I see the same patterns in the response of gamergate to the response the media and culture at large has taken with Trump. As a culture, we are furiously trying to reject Trump as a phenomenon — to declare “THIS IS NOT US”. We are trying to feverishly point out all of his blindingly obvious logical fallacies and the total absurd fantasy world that he and his supporters live in. But these do not stop their momentum. We have to accept that this is where our cultural rhetoric and systems have lead to. We have to accept that these beliefs were catered to and radicalized from inside the system.
If we cannot have an understanding of how deeply intertwined into our system the current reactionary extreme-right belief system is, we continue to leave the door open for the worst elements of humanity to hold influence and take power. Trump may leave at some point in the future, but all of the larger problems he embodies will still remain.
I’ll leave with this quote from my 2014 piece “on gamers and identity”:
“…over the years, videogames have only become more violent, have only ventured much further into simulated realism meant to more convincingly substitute for a disappointing and disempowering reality, have only catered much more deeply and pervasively to the entitlements of their users, and have only become more ingrained and ever-present in culture. where we stand now, videogames have deeply entrenched themselves as the primary venue for disempowered people to elect themselves as servants and act out the sociopathic fantasies of the ruling class. videogames literally train soldiers. if you feel disillusioned, if you feel not particularly smart or skilled, videogames are there. no surprise, then, that this learned rhetoric is further blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and creating a battleground in such a seemingly arbitrary part of popular media. no surprise that this battleground is very real.
the problem is these violent impulses are self-destructive at their core. they’re not actions of autonomous actors, they’re culturally programmed. they’re the impulses of a suicide bomber throwing himself into a crowd of people. they’re deeply emotional, deeply disconnected, and deeply afraid of what’s happening in the world — and that’s what makes them scary, and very real. and that’s why we need to see them for what they are — fear, and understand how and why they’re deeply intertwined with our culture.
if we want this stuff to go away and stop being a problem, in whatever form it takes, then we need to be able to map the source of it, to provide context, and to understand that at some fundamental level we’re all in this together.”
The deep cynicism technocratic neoliberalism has pervaded our culture with has always been a lie. Traditional cultural voices do not have the answer for how to confront this problem. We can no longer pretend that we have no influence over the direction of larger culture, or that we have any ability to escape it. We do have an influence. Everything is both a battleground and an opportunity for growth. Every community has an opportunity to address these issues and work on finding solutions in its own, unique way. We must continue to find ways to resist the sort of systems that has commodified our lives, oppressed and isolated us, and allowed for the current wave of right-wing extremism to take hold in all of their forms, no matter how big or small.
We have power and responsibility that we don’t often recognize. There is no formula — no perfect solution to the puzzle of reality. There’s just us, and our struggles.
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