The New Gnostics | City Journal


In early 2022, a video-essay creator named Dan Olson uploaded a two-hour-long exposé to YouTube. “Line Goes Up—the Problem with NFTs” quickly became a viral sensation, accumulating nearly 9 million views as of August—an incredible number for a seemingly niche topic. (The acronym “NFT”Stands for “non-fungible token,”The name of a very small group of the still obscure online cryptocurrency system.

Olson had done his research. The video begins with 2008’s real estate crash. It examines not only the circumstances that led to that crisis but also the socio-economic consequences. Olson begins by exploring the early days of Bitcoin, the first cryptocurrency. He also discusses its many features, promises, limitations, and problems. Olson moves on from Bitcoin to other digital currencies, such as Ethereum, but he wants to make a larger point than just identifying the idiosyncrasies and flaws of these technologies—he is interested in the social implications of “crypto” hype. The crypto world, according to Olson, is filled not only with hype but also with professional scammers, broken promises, predatory and antisocial behavior, desperation, greed—and rage. Rage at how the post-2008 world had turned out, rage at how the American dream doesn’t seem attainable anymore, rage at whomever and whatever could be blamed for robbing the people inside that online world of what they felt they were owed.

Less than half a year after Olson’s video appeared, TerraUSD, the biggest so-called stablecoin (a cryptocurrency intended to maintain a price peg to another asset, often a national currency), crashed overnight. The value of Terra fell to almost zero, which caused a huge shock to the entire crypto ecosystem, cutting the market cap by half. Many people lost their savings. Anger grew in the face of financial ruin. A world that promised financial safety to the savvy and the elect was a mirage. It ended with a few big losers and many, many winners. Crypto was not able to replace the corrupt and broken economy of 2008, but it did replicate its worst aspects.

Olson’s essay is available for free on YouTube, and it contains a treasure trove of information about the technical details, as well as the practical history, of cryptocurrencies. It’s a rich account, but one aspect of it deserves special elaboration: Olson’s characterization of the social environment of the online chatrooms, forums, Discord servers, and newsletters of the cryptocurrency universe. It turns out that cryptocurrency is not unique. The intense online world centered on digital currencies that Olson explores—evoking a curious mixture of hope, insecurity, desperation, fear, joy, and anger, and holding out promises of personal meaning and financial salvation—is today just one among many online. From radical feminism and anti–seed oil activism to neopaganism and “esoteric” online racism, the Internet today is full of strange new quasi-faiths, many offering competing narratives of what went wrong after 2008, each offering a secret knowledge—a gnosis—through which an enlightened few can hope to escape and purify themselves.

Indeed, one of the under-explored effects of the great financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent collapse of Western society’s model sequence for attaining professional success and social esteem (go to college, study hard, get a well-paying job, form a family) has been a privatization of meaning among younger millennials and members of Generation Z. It’s broadly accepted today that many in the younger generation face a future where they will be materially poorer and less professionally secure than their parents and grandparents. Such monumental shifts in economic reality invariably produce dramatic shifts in people’s social reality, as old expectations and beliefs no longer match up with the way things are. In the earlier periods of American history major crises as well as the ideological or religious revivals that followed them often took place in streets, churches and tent meetings. The new Gnostics now preach online that the process is taking shape.

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AAccording to Olson, the average profile for someone in the more speculative segment of the crypto boom was: middle-class, but downwardly mobile. They were also susceptible to the fraud and confidence tricks that are endemic to the market. This is mainly due to their lack of knowledge about the actual economy and the challenges of running businesses. These people had little money but enough experience and knowledge to avoid scams. They were often prone to the unstable emotional mix Olson describes: hope, confusion, and righteous anger.

These online crypto environments use slang terms such as “rug-pulls”—that is, crypto projects that take the money and run. Yet indignation over how often this seems to happen is accompanied by a sort of blithe acceptance that, yes, someone is getting ripped off; it just shouldn’t be me. Olson points to the fact that advertising is a form of advertisement. “pump-and-dump”Schemes are often done openly and not frowned upon. Often, those who take these chances to deceive others discover that they were actually recruited for the scheme. “dump”It was a part of the swindle. “pump.”A further benefit is that you have the chance to get a paycheck (for a cryptocurrency coin). “to the moon”It means that the coin is experiencing massive deflation. Deflation in the real world can be devastating, but it is not a bug in crypto. While it would be disastrous if everyone adopted Bitcoin, and the currency’s inability to expand, that would be disastrous for the entire economy, at least those who took advantage of it early would be rewarded.

This sounds like a hyper-libertarian world with each economic actor competing for his own interests. But the truth is much more complicated as was shown by GameStop’s stock price explosion in early 2021. The story started innocently. Several large Wall Street players had shorted GameStop stock, figuring that the ailing company didn’t have long to live in an era of digital distribution. These large-scale transactions were noticed by someone. “short”Posts were made about the positions on forums like Reddit or 4chan. Suddenly, thousands upon thousands of retail investors bought the stock, driving the price up and producing a classic market “short squeeze.”This little blip in the financial system was much more complicated and revealing that anyone could have guessed.

Much of the commentary on the GameStop short squeeze remained focused for a week or so. The WeekPublished an article “How GameStop Explains Right-Wing Populism,”With a picture of a MAGA cap. Rolling StoneEchoed with “GameStop, Robinhood, Reddit, and Populism,”While Newsweek declared: “The GameStop saga proves that populism is here to stay.” What everyone noticed was that this particular short squeeze wasn’t the usual story of Wall Street firms trying to make a quick buck. It was about something more: large numbers of retail investors jumping at the opportunity to invest. “punish”The powers that be. The main force behind the short squeeze is a subreddit called “Wallstreetbets,”A flood of posts had little to do financial betting and more to do about aggrievement. Users took turns posting their life stories—about struggling to get work, or finding themselves overloaded by student or medical debt, or being lied to by the media and the government, or discovering how the system was increasingly rigged to benefit a few powerful insiders. A few of my friends bought GameStop stock in the short squeeze. They were expecting to lose some money but did it as a show. “solidarity.”Finally, there was an opportunity to strike back.

“Feminists argued that the personal is the political, but for millennials and zoomers, the equation is reversed.”

In the end, the GameStop saga wasn’t a fairy tale about Robin Hood defeating the Sheriff of Nottingham. Both sides had large financial interests. Many retail investors lost the majority of their money during the squeeze, while some major investors were able enough to predict the winds and make huge profits.

The short squeeze still illustrates the same dynamic Olson observed with cryptocurrencies. A ethos of social awareness, anger at unfair systems, coexisting alongside a dog-eat-dog philosophy. At the end of this tunnel, however, there is the light. “exit,”is always a private one. The system is rigged, yes, but here’s Your chance to make a ton of money without lifting a finger—just buy the right stock, the right NFT, the right crypto, at the right time. You deserved that money from the start anyway, until someone—the “system,” the government, the bankers—kept you from getting it.

FEminists of yesteryear believed that the personal was political. However, for many Internet-enabled millennials, and zoomers, the reverse is true. The political is now the personal, and the tendency isn’t limited to crypto. Olson points to the zealotry displayed by crypto enthusiasts, with their often-unshakable belief that this or that digital currency will make them—but probably not everyone else—rich one day. This way of thinking or believing is common across an entire online generation. The promise of proliferating numbers of belief systems and fringe political narratives on the Web—across a thousand subreddits, a million Twitter accounts, and some barely read Substacks—is how to make you rich, or successful, or sexually attractive, or healthy. While Christ may have died on the Cross to save humanity from original sin, grace today can lead you to a well-paying, fulfilling job or improve your lifting form at the gym.

An introductory montage for a Fox News special hosted by Tucker Carlson was a striking example of this phenomenon. “The End of Men.”It shows muscular men engaging in mysterious or nonsensical activities, at least initially. Half-naked men aim a high-caliber rifle towards a bottle of canola oils. Another half-naked man milks the cow. A third man, fully naked, greets dawn with arms outstretched. Some sort of ultraviolet light illuminates his crotch. A narrator speaks about iron sharpening his iron to make men strong in difficult times.

One can be forgiven if a casual observer thinks that some kind of vaguely exists. “fascist”There is a lot of imagery on display. But look closer, and a different picture emerges: what you see advertised is a form of messianic, almost millenarian, self-help—about as far as one could get from an ideology of violent collectivism. The self-help dimension is easy to overlook once you understand the reasons for the activities.

Why is the muscular man shooting at canola oil bottles, rather than something more practical—an actual target, say? The answer is: Because “seed oils”You are one of the major villains in a new online quasi-faith. According to the story, seed oils (canola, sunflower, and other oils) are inherently unnatural. Humans were not meant to eat them. That they’re found in everything these days is a disaster, helping to explain why people (including young men) are so unhealthy—and another reason society is so fundamentally damaged. The “science”This is secondary. Seed oils are not only bad on an empirical level, but they are also evil on a spiritual one. Seed oils can cause damage to the body. Eliminating them and preaching their elimination will cleanse oneself of all impurities and help others to find salvation. This Carlson special recounts how many young men today have been deprived their true potential because of environmental toxicology. If the toxicity is removed, an elevated, more natural state of mind will emerge.

This is a modern form of Gnosticism, the early-Christian-era belief system that postulates that humans contain a piece of God or the divinity inside themselves, to which they then lose access because of the material world’s corruption. This connection can be rekindled through proper spiritual knowledge or gnosis. The enlightened person can then free himself from the corruption around him. This belief system posits that seed oils are the greatest malevolent force in 2022. Soy, micro-plastics, and hormonal runoff from birth control can all serve the same function. You can strip away the divine elements of the story and replace them with fairly crude scientism, but the belief system’s structure remains unchanged.

Once you understand this, all the Carlson intros will fit together. Why is the naked male rubbing his groins with UV light? The UV light hitting the testicles is believed to activate additional testosterone production. Why is the man half-naked milking a cow? Because raw milk has been a source of nourishment for humans for millennia. This was before pasteurization. (Some zealots go further and claim that raw cow milk is a good start on the path of self-actualization. However, drinking it is the best way to show strength and vitality to an adult male human being. “raw”Breast milk. The Carlson clip speaks vaguely about how it works. “strong men”may return and “reestablish order,”So that the “cycle begins anew,” there’s no sense of collective purpose. We see that each individual is seeking their own salvation, as in other modern folk religions. Some may seek redemption through drinking “raw water”Others place their faith in a cryptocurrency, or a centralized financial system. “Bored Ape”NFT is bits of code that have the magical power to fix the entire world.

It’s hard to overstate just how full the Internet is with itinerant prophets, holy fools, hustlers, fraudsters, and soothsayers. This is the largest figure in this ecosystem. “Bronze Age Pervert,”BAP, an ex-academic and poster on an obscure Internet discussion forum, who published a book. Bronze Age MindsetThe cult favorite of the dissident Right is “The Associated Press”, which has been dubbed “The Associated Press”. According to BAP, he is not a political figure and sees himself as an aesthetic purveyor. That his own disciples often confuse him with a political leader (sometimes to BAP’s obvious frustration) is because the search for an aesthetic is a small step from the search for some sort of personal gnosis, and the search for personal gnosis is now a religious—sorry, “political”—impulse among the younger generation.

Not too long ago, a man wrote a book about bodybuilders. He also shared his personal stories of getting drunk while in a random Gulf State (as). Bronze Age MindsetDetails) could not be mistakenly interpreted as a political act. That’s no longer true, and here, the generational difference is stark. Dan Olson is a millennial, and thus his exploration of crypto isn’t hindered by the slang terms, the ironic distance, or the various cultural mores of those who, in the parlance of our times, are “Highly Online.” He knows what the various terms mean, he knows when people are being ironic and when they’re not, and so his harshest criticism targets the actual ideology of the crypto ecosystem, rather than remaining a surface-level critique of what it Says it’s about.

This interpretive penetration is obviously more difficult for older people. Michael Anton’s review of Bronze Age MindsetFor The Claremont Review of BooksThis is a good sign. Anton self-consciously acknowledges that he doesn’t really understand what “the kids” are doing. He’s trying to understand—and the review of Bronze Age Mindset is friendly and open-minded but at least tentatively critical of the details—but it’s clear that he has no illusions on that front. The book is highly recommended to him because he believes that this is what he needs. “the kids”These days, they are very interested in these topics. Anton’s review concludes with a rebuke of his fellow (older) conservatives: the kids no longer listen to them, and thus the need to try to understand the younger generation can’t be put off. Anton says it this way: “In the spiritual war for the hearts and minds of the disaffected youth on the right, conservatism is losing. BAPism is winning.”

Bronze Age Pervert has never been thrilled by the idea of “BAPism” winning. Like Karl Marx declaring that, if he knew one thing, it’s that he wasn’t a Marxist, BAP is not a “BAPist,” as that would imply a political movement, with him as a leader—a job he does not want. What has taken over the young—both inside and outside the Right—is not BAPism but the ideology (or quasi-religion) of self-care. BAPism’s aesthetic exhortations offer its supplicants one kind of self-care, one kind of gnosis, but it exists in a vast sea of rival online approaches. Play a mental game of six degrees of separation with BAP, and you quickly move on to the protein-powder salesmen, the raw-egg slonkers, the breast-milk enjoyers, the reactionary monarchists, the anarcho-primitivists, and more. Before you know it, you’re no longer on the right, but on the extreme left, with competing feminist or transsexual “mindsets,”All of them promise the same thing: personal improvement, career advancement or some other lifestyle benefit.

Illustration by David Hollenbach

AThis, and other phenomena, has grown since the 2008 financial crisis. Social crises used to spark religious revivals. The United States has a long history of Christian revivalism during times of rapid social changes. Rod Dreher, a Christian conservative who bemoaned the lack in religious expression among the young, is one example. Is this true? True, we don’t see an explosion of large tent meetings and fiery preachers touring the churches of the American Northeast, as in the 1830s. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The older generations may not be aware of a revival in religion happening right under their noses or inside their pockets. Social media has replaced the tent as a space to convert and save. Nineteenth-century postmillenarianism exhorted the faithful to cleanse society to prepare the way for Christ’s return; in the 2020s, millennials and zoomers seek to purify their testicles. Individual seekers are seeking enlightenment through ritual, secret knowledge, and purification of the self from the corrupting influences of fiat money, patriarchy, the white gaze, seed oils, and social norms about breast milk consumption by adult males.

The hypocrisy of cryptocurrency chatrooms—people enraged at getting scammed while simultaneously hoping to participate in the scamming of others—is natural in this context, because gnostic belief is almost never about collective redemption. In earlier eras, “betterment”It was usually about attaining a higher spiritual status. Many young people in the post 2008 world are desperate. “gnosis”It could be as simple as finding a way out of student debt to meet a girlfriend. For those hungry for answers—who want a narrative, something they can do, a blueprint that will finally make sense of the world of closed doors and shrinking opportunities they find themselves in—there is really only one rule: as long as you have an Internet connection, seek, and ye shall find.

Illustrations by David Hollenbach


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