‘Exit’ Stage Right
The right’s Whole Earth Catalog moment could be transformative—or it could be a mirage.
It has all happened before.
In 1969, while preparing to deliver a speech to a Lions Club in Leary, Georgia, then-Governor Jimmy Carter saw a bright green object over the horizon shortly after sundown. It changed its color several times before it “receded into the distance.”
All evidence points to the incident occurring in January, but Carter, curiously, claimed in his report to the International UFO Bureau that it was in October. By memory’s trick of conjoining significant events, the peanut farmer’s glowing body became a celestial prodigy heralding the Days of Rage, the Weather Underground’s effort to “bring the war home” at Chicago.
Carter’s lapse gilded the lily. Omens in January were not out of place; 1969 was a tough, strange year, beginning to end. Woodstock and Altamont provided the bad-feeling full stop to an era whose sharp edges and dark spots have been softened and made rosy in the Windsor spectacles of a generation’s collective memory. Nixon and the adults were in charge. The Beatles broke up. Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, held a rally at Yale while his goons tortured a man to death for supposedly informing on the Party to the FBI. The good feelings were over, and things got pretty dark.
As a contemporary sage and medicine man said with calendrical inaccuracy but spiritual truth, “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is nearly over. They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s. It is ninety-one days to the end of the decade and as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”
The response: dropping out. It was the era of the commune. After 1968’s trial issue, the Whole Earth Catalog spun into production at scale in 1969. The purpose: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing … . Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.” In short, a how-to manual to (re)start a civilization on your own terms.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the hippie movement in this country was basically reactionary: anti-progress, obsessed with the recovery of folkways, and, especially in its Whole Earth Catalog–inflected form, yearning in particular for the recovery of an earlier phase and space of American historical development, the frontier. As with the Catholic religious reforms of the last century (and the Protestant reforms from inception), archaeology and iconoclasm went hand in hand, and the destruction of forms and traditions was justified only by appeal to an older, purer form of forms and traditions.
But history is a series of punchlines. The editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, went on to work first for the State of California under Gov. Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown, then for the Global Business Network and the MIT Media Lab; he is currently advising Jeff Bezos on how to build a big clock inside a mountain. An even less subtle example: Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner’s memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, is the unapologetic chronicle of how his magazine and the counterculture it putatively spoke for became a project for pushing the candidacies of the distinctly Big Business–friendly Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
This scummy complex of mental detritus has been floating at the surface of my mind.
Times are strange here in the post-Floyd, post-pandemic, post(?)-Trump world. Last week, the president of Mexico—who, our hysterical press informs me, is swift becoming an enemy of democracy, a dictator, an autocrat—posted what he claimed, apparently without irony, to be a picture of a pre-Columbian elf or woodland spirit. This post followed close upon a period of about a week in which the American military shot down several unidentified flying objects. Some appear to have been hobbyist balloons, but others, including the viral “octagon,” remain mysterious.
The practice of divination is back; both the old methods of bastardized Ptolemaic astrology and tarot, but also through powerful symbolic computers—“artificial intelligence”—trained on statistics and bodies of text inaccessible by human beings just because of their vast scale. You ask the bot questions, electricity and complicated statistics spring into action, and it gives you answers—not so different from Stewart Brand’s beloved I Ching, which uses gravity and statistics to generate practical gnomons. Like the I Ching, I suspect it is subject to diabolical influence.
Low-grade civil unrest, inflation, and the shadow of the mushroom cloud—they, also, are back. Liberalized drug use, elaborate experiments in sexual deviancy, environmental disasters in Ohio—back, back, back. It’s all back.
So as I read this article by James Pogue, a friend of The American Conservative, about how a motley collection of broadly right-aligned technologists, writers, and fellow-travelers are “exiting”—buying land, stockpiling weapons, and waiting for the imminent collapse of “remotely done power and glory”—I hooted in triumph. Obviously the right is set to have its Whole Earth Catalog moment, I thought to myself. My heuristic, that we are living through the early ’70s with worse music, remains unbeaten. As to the solution, cutting back to the essentials and trying to build again: Who could have a problem with that?
But I found myself thinking about the sequelae. To be a man of the right is to love a losing cause, to be prepared for every kind of betrayal from every friend and ally. If the first Whole Earth Catalog moment saw its heroes and founders not just return to the unlovely fold of mainstream society, but become The Man—billionaires’ handmaidens, boosters for the Deadhead president throwing missiles at Bosnians—what will happen this time? Especially if “exiting” does produce something new and, to the mainstream, compelling?
Sohrab Ahmari has warned of the perils of lifestyle rightism. The transformative political figure who made possible all this—our moment’s whole thing—now inscrutably backs the most entrenched swamp creatures. In two years, or five years, or ten years, how many exiteers will return just to preach Grover Norquistism in buckskin? Will the Urbit Foundation change its Twitter profile picture to show its support for war in Iran? Will they go carnivore at a Bridgewater corporate leadership retreat?
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We may well hope that the widespread “exit” is the preamble to a Great Awakening, a durable renewal of the American moral and cultural tradition in our own time; we must keep the faith and remember the cause. We must also be ready to be disappointed, or even betrayed. Pogue reported a scene from the conclusion of an Urbit conference in Miami: “‘Nothing is normal anymore,’ I heard a guy mutter, apparently to himself, as I headed toward the water. ‘And it never will be again.’”
Maybe. But normal—the axis of Wall Street, Washington, and the World Economic Forum—has a way of winning, and turning its enemies against themselves. They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s; Dylan has gone electric. Come 2029, do not be surprised if, despite long and earnest toil, we have yet again failed to paint it black.
It has all happened before.