Redpilling and the Regime

Claiming to be a daring outsider who speaks forbidden truths has become a standard trope. Can it still threaten the establishment?
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In May 2020, apropos of nothing, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted: “Take the red pill.” The “red pill,” of course, is a reference to the 1999 film The Matrix. In a famous scene, the protagonist, Neo, faces a choice between taking either a red or a blue pill. The red pill will dramatically reveal the full truth about reality, expanding his newfound awareness that the world he lived in was actually a computer-generated simulation. The blue pill will put him back under the power of the illusion. Taking the red pill, then, has broadly come to mean opening oneself to hard, counterintuitive truths. But this anodyne version of the metaphor was not what Musk’s tweet suggested to many observers. Instead, they read it as a gesture of support for a cluster of far-right ideologies that have attached themselves to this label, leading liberal Tesla owners to fear the worst about their erstwhile hero.

The blogger Curtis Yarvin, then writing under his pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, seems to have first popularized the metaphor in the neoreactionary — that is, right-wing — realm. For example, in 2009 he wrote: “It is no use deciding that the solution is to be a ‘conservative.’ It is wonderful that you’ve gotten past progressivism, but you still need the red pill.” Yarvin claimed to offer readers an alternative to the propaganda of the “Cathedral,” his term for the complex of state bureaucracies, the university system, and the mainstream media that together prop up liberal rule. Taking the red pill, for him, meant becoming cognizant of truths forbidden by the establishment.

Around that same time, “The Red Pill” was also adopted as the name of a popular Reddit forum for the “manosphere,” an array of misogynist subcultures united around the belief that feminism controls modern culture and men must free their minds of its influence. As with Yarvin, being “redpilled” here roughly meant gaining independence from the standard liberal narratives.

On the other hand, a competing “red pill” narrative has emerged in recent years, partly as a result of the gender transitions of the Matrix’s two filmmakers, the Wachowski siblings. As Andrea Long Chu has explained, this interpretation says that Neo’s “vague but maddening sense that something is off about the world” is actually gender dysphoria. “The Matrix is the gender binary.” Taking the red pill, in this version, means freeing oneself of it. Some rejoinders to Musk on Twitter cited this meaning as the true sense of the metaphor. The red pill has also acquired appeal for left-wing thinkers on economics. For example, a documentary about Marxism released after the 2008 financial crash deployed the metaphor to imagine Marx’s own awakening to the truth of capitalism’s ideology.

If the metaphorical possibilities of redpilling are so varied, that’s partly because it is an update of one of the oldest stories about knowledge in Western culture. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a man dwelling in a cave discovers that images he had believed to be reality were really only shadows. His ascent to the realm of truth, like Neo’s, is painful and dangerous, and as a result of his discoveries he becomes an outsider to the society he once inhabited. Similarly, in Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes considered the possibility that what he perceived as reality was an illusion produced by an evil demon who “employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”

“Taking the red pill” occupies a peculiar position in our cultural lexicon: tainted by its association with some of the most widely reviled online subcultures, yet instantly recognizable and infinitely adaptable. The phrase conveys a belief that one is socially marginalized for daring to believe dangerous truths — yet it describes an experience so widespread that almost anyone might deploy it. The red pill has somehow become both culturally central and peripheral, at once a dog whistle and a cliché.

What does this ambivalence say about the shifting status of knowledge in a moment ever more saturated by information and ever more fragmented by our interpretation of it? Why has this old story received a new lease on life in our extremely online moment, turning what might seem like a conventional allegory of “critical thinking” into something dangerous and subversive again?

A Social Drug

The trouble with the red-vs.-blue-pill metaphor is how to know which is which. We use these terms to describe who is in touch with reality versus who merely follows the commonplace view. But is simply rejecting conventional wisdom really a guarantee that you have reached the truth? The “redpilled” claim to have heroically escaped from the herd, but to outsiders it is really they who are deluded. The metaphor does not seem to offer any third option, an objective viewpoint for deciding who is actually right. Instead, we might bracket the question of truth for the moment and see if we can compare the paths the two sides take.

In the 1970s, a group of sociologists of science at the University of Edinburgh developed what they called the “Strong Program” — a way of trying to understand “good” and “bad” science in sociologically similar ways, by a kind of “symmetry” between them. As David Bloor, a leading figure in the group, explained, the program was an attempt to combat the

prevailing assumption, … which has it that true (or rational) beliefs are to be explained by reference to reality, while false (or irrational) beliefs are explained by reference to the distorting influence of society.

For instance, Bloor wrote, Gregor Mendel’s foundational work in genetics is typically explained by pointing to his careful observations of plants, whereas the competing and discredited claims by Trofim Lysenko are explained by pointing to the societal pressures under Stalinism and Soviet agriculture. Bloor and his colleagues tried to show that society played no less a role in forming Mendel’s ideas than it did in forming Lysenko’s — hence their symmetry.

Largely bracketed by this approach was why anyone should think that Mendel was right and Lysenko wrong. The symmetrical approach of the Strong Program limits its ability to explain how scientific discoveries occur — but perhaps it can tell us something useful about how the public responds to authoritative claims. For instance, during the Covid pandemic, the self-flattering view of the educated class has been that accepting the current orthodoxy on things like masks, lockdowns, and vaccinations proceeds from an understanding of the scientific basis for those measures, while those who don’t accept them have been deceived by “misinformation.” But the vast majority of people who fall in line with orthodoxy do not do so because they are fully versed in the relevant research. Indeed, if they were, they might have more questions than they currently do, as research is often not as conclusive or univocal as they imagine. (Consider the debate, going back to the beginning of the pandemic and still ongoing, over the benefits of universal masking, particularly outdoors.) What truly sets the orthodox apart is not better grounding in the science but their trust of public health authorities.

Meanwhile, those who question the effectiveness of lockdowns or wonder if the coronavirus was developed in a lab are often accused of a lack of “critical thinking.” But in some cases, the truth may just as well be the opposite: that not asking questions exhibits a lack of critical thinking. All of us have been told to treat evidence skeptically, even when it comes from nominally credible sources. And we all know of times and places where those who controlled the flow of information were ideologues of the church or the state, and yet people trusted them. Authoritarian regimes might first come to mind, but democracies are not exempt from scientific fads that can capture a great deal of government and expert support — eugenics is just one notorious case. Unquestioning faith in authorities might put us in the same predicament today.

The symmetrical approach, as Bloor explained it, assumes that “both true and false, and rational and irrational ideas, in as far as they are collectively held, should all equally be … explained by reference to the same kinds of cause.” That is to say, adherence to scientifically or officially sanctioned views may be the result of careful weighing of evidence, or of unreflective deference to authority — and so might the rejection of those views.

The bluepilled regard the redpilled as deluded by misinformation, while the redpilled regard the bluepilled as dupes of the establishment. But a symmetrical model would suggest that both may have arrived at their positions following similar paths. In both camps, some are breaking with the consensus view within their community, while others are simply following it. Likewise, some on both sides have read extensively on the subject in question, while others have not.

What Is It Like to Redpill?

What the symmetrical approach leaves out is the particular quality of the experience of becoming redpilled. Let’s take a familiar example.

During the Covid pandemic, one popular reaction to skeptics of lockdowns, masks, vaccines, and establishment views on drugs like hydroxychloroquine has been slogans like “believe in science.” This is in effect an exhortation to blindly trust authority — and in this sense runs contrary to the supposed scientific ethos of critical thinking. In the same way, “I ****ing love science” propaganda that aims at debunking conspiratorial thinking fails to address the genuinely complex question of how to convey understanding of hyper-specialized research to a broader, untrained public.

This communication problem is one of the rifts from which the experience of redpilling proceeds. Consider the bewildering early months of 2020, when Covid went from an obscure crisis in provincial China to a global catastrophe. In the span of a few weeks, public health authorities, major media outlets, and elected leaders went from telling us that the panic about the virus was more dangerous than the virus itself to imposing unprecedented restrictions on daily activities.

Regardless of whether this reversal was based on solid scientific findings, its rationale was confusingly communicated. Instead of explanations, we were mostly treated to moralizing lectures: first about why avoiding Chinese restaurants was racist and wearing masks was irrational, then about why going to any restaurants at all or not wearing masks was tantamount to murder. Failure to keep up with the rapidly evolving orthodoxy was deemed ignorant or hateful. Even having questions or doubts — surely an essential part of critical thinking — was treated as dangerous.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that many turned away from the official narrative and began to seek answers elsewhere. Some turned to alternate experts or to questionable pseudo-authorities. But the doubts that led the skeptics down the rabbit hole in the first place were not necessarily more anti-scientific than accepting whatever the authorities said in a given moment.

At the risk of being overly schematic, the redpilling experience generally begins with a situation like the one just described: a moment when the official version — the consensus reality — somehow feels off. The reasons that it feels off will vary. Sometimes the “off” feeling comes from blatant inconsistencies in the standard narrative. Or it comes from the realization that authorities are hiding something from public scrutiny, such as federal investigations into UFOs, or information on the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. Individual experiences may also play a role, such as a personal health crisis that standard medical accounts fail to explain.

The feeling that something is off leads to further investigation, which uncovers more inconsistencies, and eventually evolves into the sort of systematic doubt explored by thinkers like Descartes: a generalized distrust of the surface layer of reality, and a search for a more certain anchor point in a hidden realm beneath. In The Matrix, this anchor point is a counter-authority figure, Morpheus. The redpilled tend to find a new authoritative account that replaces the orthodox one and offers a manner of suturing reality back together — a process often reinforced by a newfound sense of being a member of the enlightened few who have walked the same path.

‘Masters of Suspicion’

What is striking about the redpilling experience is that it resembles some of the most influential currents of modern intellectual life. Since the late nineteenth century, a series of new variants of the Platonic and Cartesian model of knowledge have arisen, in which radical suspicion is the first step in grasping counterintuitive truths that overturn the conventional understanding of reality. This idea still influences a wide range of academic fields, and the recent rise of the red pill metaphor can be understood as a symptom of its recent popularization in Internet culture.

The phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” emerged from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s 1965 book Freud and Philosophy, where he uses it to name the common framework shared by three key figures of modern thought: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. For Ricoeur, what distinguished their “school of suspicion,” which they pioneered in the nineteenth century, was a conviction that the most important truths underlying human existence are being concealed from the average observer, and that new critical methods of interpretation are needed to bring this hidden substrate into view.

The suspicious sensibility of modern thought, by this account, regards surface appearances and conventional meanings as deceptive, and powerful forces as doing the deceiving. Thus, for Marx, the universalist values of the modern state and the rights it grants to citizens conceal the class interests of the bourgeoisie, for whose benefit the state operates. For Nietzsche, the apparent meekness and compassion of Christian morality hides a venomous resentment and will to domination. And for Freud, a wide range of human behaviors, even in the most elevated spheres, are ultimately driven by base sexual instincts.

For disciples of all these thinkers, the right theory functions as the red pill. Just as taking the pill allowed Neo to perceive the functioning of the Matrix beneath what he had previously taken to be reality, the “masters of suspicion” offer systemic accounts of what underlies a deceptive surface reality. Neo’s newfound awareness eventually renders him capable of manipulating the appearances generated by the Matrix; similarly, these theories promise mastery. To what extent that mastery is actionable, personally or collectively, varies, but at a basic level they all enable what the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson calls “cognitive mapping”: a means of conceptual orientation, a sort of intellectual GPS.

Even theories that are not, as such, “suspicious” — that do not posit the existence of forces that consciously or unconsciously try to conceal the truth about the world — can function in this way, providing maps that explain why the world is shaped the way it is and how to navigate it. Darwinism is one prominent case. Anti-feminist forums such as “The Red Pill” dwell on neo-Darwinian themes, largely adapted from pop versions of evolutionary psychology, that interpret today’s gender politics as an aberration from nature. Much of this “manosphere” posits that sexual behavior can actually be explained in terms of reproductive strategies that involve a great deal of deception between men and women. This claim has various supposed applications, such as the self-help repertoire of “pickup artists,” which claims to offer not only philosophical attacks on feminism but scientific seduction techniques.

The anonymous Twitter user and cult writer Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) is a notorious figure in the same general online space of overtly male chauvinist ideology that includes the pickup artist and Red Pill subcultures. In his manifesto, Bronze Age Mindset, BAP celebrates “alpha” masculinity, excoriates feminism, and preaches a gospel of male self-improvement based on physical strength and martial brotherhood. But rather than falling back on Darwin like many others in the “manosphere,” BAP draws heavily upon Nietzsche, or a tendentious reading of him. Building on some of Nietzsche’s polemics, he argues that liberal ideology is a “slave morality” that allows women and nonmasculine “bugmen” to lord it over the strong.

Reactionaries like BAP and the pickup artists, despite their hatred of the left, often end up engaged in something not unlike the Marxist critique of ideology, because they must explain how most average people have been deluded into a “false consciousness” that distorts the true nature of reality. This is also apparent in the work of Curtis Yarvin, for whom the “Cathedral” functions similarly to what the Marxist thinker Louis Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses,” which use mystification to create an aura of neutrality around state power. For Yarvin, to take the red pill is to become aware of the real interests served by supposedly neutral expert authority. The irony here is that Yarvin’s nemeses in the university might even approve of this argument if it were framed in explicitly Marxist terms; indeed, many of them teach and cite the parallel arguments made by Marxists.

The same tendency toward generalized suspicion of expert authority is also evident in less theoretically ambitious forms of redpilling. Consider skeptics who try to explain why a claim like “vaccines are safe and effective” or “humans are causing global warming,” which they take to be false, is not only widely accepted but impossible to object to without being demeaned as a crank or conspiracy theorist. Like a Marxist or Nietzschean, they often argue that mainstream scientific experts and institutions are invested in preserving existing power dynamics while preserving their aura of objectivity.

Critique for the Masses

Once an esoteric theoretical stance, the basic premises of the “school of suspicion” have now become commonplace, shared as they are across a range of ideological groupings and subcultures. In his 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour asked what the popularization of suspicion means for the dominant modern intellectual project of social critique that arose out of the work of figures like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. As Latour puts it, social critique had been dedicated to combating “ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact.” However, he wonders whether the greater problem is now “an excessive distrust of good matters of fact,” a suspicion that all claims conceal “bad ideological biases.” His central example is climate science, whose typically right-wing critics allege that its supposed objectivity conceals particular interests — an argument not unlike ones made by left-leaning academic social critics.

Latour accordingly asks if there is a “real difference between conspiracists and a popularized … version of social critique.” After all,

in both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck, and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes — society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism — while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation.

All of this suggests that Latour’s title question, asking whether social critique has run out of steam, is partially misleading. Critique, in his account, has become vernacularized, and in the process its operations have not run out of steam but rather accelerated beyond the academy’s control. As he notes, for any major news story, “the smoke of the event has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories begin revising the official account.”

He compares the work of the lone intellectual iconoclasts of the past — think of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud — to the 1950s supercomputers operated by technical experts. Today, by contrast, average people can perform the operations of radical critique as easily as they can use the miniaturized computers in their pockets. Latour thus wonders whether his concern is just a “patrician spite for the popularization of critique.” But the condescension can also run in the other direction: As he remarks, “my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naïve” for accepting the U.S. government’s account of the 9/11 attacks.

On the other hand, Latour was right to see that traditional critique was running out of steam in academic circles — in part just because it had been vernacularized, as the rise of the “red pill” metaphor suggests. For instance, an influential new approach that emerged in the early 2000s under the name “postcritique” pushed back against the instinctively suspicious sensibility that had long dominated many academic fields. Perhaps, like a luxury product that loses its allure from an abundance of cheap imitations, the intellectual capital to be accrued by demystifying and debunking and unmasking declined once it was embraced by the masses.

Taking the Blue Pill, But Ironically

The possibility that radical critique and suspicion had run their course as a way of escaping a false public consciousness surfaced already in the 1980s, for example in the work of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Remember that ideology, in traditional Marxist terms, functions equivalently to the blue pill: It mystifies the true nature of reality and hides the power relations operative in society beneath a façade of neutrality and objectivity. Žižek, drawing on his German counterpart in his 1989 debut book The Sublime Object of Ideology, considered the prospect that the blue pill, so to speak — and thus also the red one — have lost their effect, because even though we know we are being deceived, we don’t really care. This is because “ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical”:

The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less still insists upon the mask…. One knows the falsehood very well…, but still one does not renounce it.

What if we become fully aware of hidden truths about how power functions, and remain unwilling or unable to challenge the system? If this is so, Žižek writes, it “renders impossible — or, more precisely, vain — the classic critical-ideological procedure” of unmasking or debunking.

It may seem perverse to believe that we would knowingly choose the mask. But some manifestations of this “cynical ideology” have become familiar to us: the ad that feigns embarrassment about trying to persuade you to buy a product, and is thereby all the more successful at persuading you to buy it; the politician who attacks the political class and expresses shame about being a politician in order to advance his political career; the self-deprecating boss who, in claiming there are no hierarchies in the company, preemptively deflects criticisms of those hierarchies and reinforces his authority. These are all more or less openly deceptive strategies most of us are aware of, and yet they work well enough to have become persistent strategies. This is in part because they are impervious to the “unmasking” gesture of critique.

In all these cases, writes Žižek, “even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.” By anticipating our attempts to unmask its operations, cynical ideology reassures us that there is no need to do so, because we are all already in the know. This simultaneously flattering and pacifying strategy makes resistance seem both unnecessary and futile: Taking the red pill does not challenge power, it only affirms what we already knew, thereby reinforcing it.

Useful Heretics

Žižek’s analysis of cynical ideology often focuses on how Soviet governments lasted so long in the absence of real popular support. Everyone knew that communism had become ideologically and morally bankrupt, he argues, and yet this knowledge had become subtly integrated into the regime’s self-legitimization. If, as some claim, we are now in America’s “late Soviet” or “post-Soviet” moment of declining or collapsed regime legitimacy, the question of cynical ideology is worth revisiting.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent bailouts, many on both the right and the left concluded that the governing class had been irreversibly discredited by its collusion with the financial elite — and yet the power of that class remains largely intact to this day. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was described as dealing a fatal blow to the mainstream bipartisan establishment — but if anything, it really reinforced the hold on power of old establishment mainstays like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, and ultimately led to a restoration of the previous regime in the form of the Biden administration. Some of the redpilled believe Covid is a hoax and the 2020 election was stolen — yet they have posed no credible challenges to the “deep state” they loathe, and the Capitol riot may ultimately have strengthened the establishment’s hand by triggering a hunt by law enforcement and social media companies for rioters and their sympathizers.

The redpilled, then, turn out to be less threatening to the establishment than they would hope. But, for related reasons, the bluepilled may well be less duped by the powers that be than the redpilled believe. In a cynical age, taking the blue pill does not necessarily mean being blind to how power really functions. Rather, we might imagine a Matrix whose operators implicitly acknowledge to the subjugated that it exists, and just shrug it aside with some knowing humor. In this scenario, perhaps the bluepilled are those who laugh along with them (or at least pretend to), while the redpilled are those who refuse to be in on the joke (or at least believe they have refused).

Perhaps the bluepilled — those who profess adherence to officially sanctioned truths — have a more complex stance than the redpilled depiction of them as simple-minded dupes would suggest. In the case of public health messaging around Covid, many surely took notice of the drastic shifts in the official narrative without adopting a redpilled position of suspecting large-scale deception. Earlier this century, revelations including WikiLeaks, the Snowden leaks, and the Panama Papers brought many of the dirty secrets of the governing class and the financial elite out into the open, and yet in the end they did little damage to the power of either group. Plenty of those who have access to the same information as the redpilled seem content to look the other way, or quickly forget. The truth will apparently not set us free.

The red pill has managed to become both marginal and central, both banal and stigmatized, because, in the cynical dispensation, most of us share the nagging feeling that something is off, and we have all noticed the “glitches in the Matrix” that reveal its imperfect operation: the surprise revelations of untoward truths, the gaps in the official narrative, the abrupt vacillations in what we are expected to believe. To be redpilled, in this case, is to violate the social code of a world in which we are permitted to point out the emperor has no clothes as long as we take this fact as a source of ironic amusement. But even such violations — which because of the strength of the social code get dismissed as the embarrassing outbursts of vulgarians — may ultimately reinforce the official narrative.

Much like the redpilled, many of the bluepilled likely sense that there is something wrong with the current dispensation. But the opposing responses of the bluepilled and the redpilled may ultimately balance and sustain each other. The fact that there are redpilled available to be labeled extremists and conspiracy theorists discourages those who wish to hold on to a certain respectability from voicing their misgivings, sustaining a stigma that also limits the redpill ranks. The proliferation of misinformation, conspiracy theory, and the like thus plays a necessary function in the current information ecosystem. Official narratives, rather than standing on their own, rely on counternarratives to demarcate the limits of socially acceptable opinion.

The ubiquity of the red pill today is not, as the redpilled often seem to imagine, symptomatic of a world under the sway of carefully maintained illusions. Rather, it’s the product of a world where the operations of power no longer rely on the maintenance of coherent, collectively shared narratives — where fragmentation can be just as useful.

Geoff Shullenberger, “Redpilling and the Regime,” The New Atlantis, Number 65, Summer 2021, pp. 3-14.
Header image: An Illustration of The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic / Wikimedia

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