I quit my job,” he said, sitting across from me at the local ramen shop. “Now I want to start something in culture. We need a cultural movement of life-affirming excellence.”
It was a good start and a good spirit. As for the details, I told him otherwise. You don’t want a movement. You don’t want to do anything in “culture.”
The problem with movements is that they end up dominated by a low-contribution majority who try to make the movement about rewarding social imitation rather than productive work. Despite their sincere belief that they are helping and assurances that they “totally support the movement,” these imitators are actually the most dangerous political enemies of any real project. If you don’t purge them, shut down “the movement,” and instead become a real organization or discipline, they will fatten themselves on whatever capital your movement amasses, manipulate or purge you, and then blame you when it all goes down in flames. Don’t bother with movements.
There is such a thing as culture, but any approach that aims to change it is too indirect. The indirectness of cultural strategies is apparent in their account of how they affect material outcomes in the world: you do a bunch of work to build up a cultural movement, the movement manages to change “the culture,” and then that finally inspires someone else to actually do something real. Or at least that’s the hope. More likely, it just inspires them to do something “in culture” like you did.
The only thing that matters in “culture” is the ancient formula of “undying fame among mortals” for great deeds of note. The great work is Achilles’s rage on the Trojan plain, Homer’s vivid account of it, the David of Michelangelo, the conquest of Mexico by Cortez, the religious inspiration of Jean d’Arc, the Principia of Newton, the steam engine of Watt, or the rocket expedition to the moon by Wernher von Braun. These and hundreds of other glorious works stand out with such ferocity from the background noise of history that they become legend and inspire whole traditions of excellence. Even when their living disciplines fade out of memory and into myth, their stories and ruins carry their spirit until some future generation of heroes picks up the torch. That’s how you influence culture.
None of these figures worked alone. From Achilles’s myrmidons and Achaean princes to von Braun’s steely-eyed missile men, the greatest works were the efforts of disciplined teams and networks of craft. Michelangelo didn’t arise from nothing, but was just the greatest genius building on an existing groundwork of technique and funding. Even Newton, perhaps the most alone in his actual period of work, “stood on the shoulders” of his giant predecessors and correspondents. This is the substance of culture.
Note that the key phenomena are not movements. They are not collective efforts to build social capital around any particular idea or aesthetic or value. Nor are they forms of propaganda or prestige. The real core activities of culture are disciplines of craft aimed at actually achieving something great, regardless of what everyone else thinks. They are organizations mobilized and disciplined to achieve their great missions. They are heroes inspired by stories of past accomplishments and the future possibility of creating a new material reality.
The Lifecycle of Material Culture
Before there were steely-eyed missile men at NASA, there was a loose network of German rocket cultists launching amateur rocket experiments and blowing things up, inspired to action by the cosmic implications of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation. Working in the late nineteenth century, Tsiolkovsky had worked out the essential mathematics of space travel and laid out how it would be done. In the 1920s, Hermann Oberth, the father of German amateur rocket science, left academia because they couldn’t see the full importance of continuing Tsiolkovsky’s work. But he and his rocket men did not pursue their project of spaceflight as a self-aware cooperative social movement trying to raise awareness. Rather, they worked directly as a competitive technical discipline in pursuit of spaceflight itself. Glory was the sure prize and joyful comradery a side effect, but their motivation was the direct pursuit of the result.
When the war picked up and the state recognized the military implications of Tsiolkovsky’s equation, the discipline of rocket science found its greatest patron. The loose network of rocket scientists was pulled together into an organization—first, in the Aggregat missile program which developed the V-2 rocket, and then again into NASA’s programs which ultimately landed Americans on the moon.
After the war, the German rocket scientists were languishing in America until Walt Disney himself intervened to help von Braun bring Tsiolkovsky’s good news to the American state. Their Man in Space documentary was presented as popular science, but the audience that actually mattered was the few men in the state who made the decision to fund Apollo and its precursors.
It was only the moon landing itself that firmly punched rocket science into mainstream culture in any lasting sense. It was a great deed on par with the greatest wonders of history. Those who accomplished it have achieved undying fame and will be remembered for all time. Future heroes will look back on them and feel the draw, inspired to go beyond them and continue their work, as Caesar looked back on Alexander, and as Cortez looked back on both of them. If SpaceX’s Starship finally achieves regular re-usable transport to orbit and beyond, it will be completing the next step of the great von Braun paradigm as imagined nearly a century ago and will be directly descended from it by inspiration.
The only game worth pursuing in “culture” is this lifecycle of great deeds and eternal fame. First, there is the articulation of possibility by some visionary genius like Tsiolkovsky. Then, adventurers like Oberth and his followers pursue that vision in an intrinsically motivated practical discipline. As these attempts find traction, leaders like Dornberger and von Braun build hierarchical mission-oriented organizations to accomplish specific great ends. Once successful, their deeds become the mythic inspiration of a new generation of leaders like Musk. At almost no point does it matter what the public thinks.
It was not public spectacle and appreciation that turned Tsiolkovsky’s visions into von Braun’s reality. Even once the deed was done and had achieved fame, it was the rocket cult among the engineers that kept the dream alive and made SpaceX possible, not the public.
No other kind of cultural persuasion is relevant or viable. Even the bards who translate past deeds into inspiring myth are at best doing the same thing as Tsiolkovsky: informed by knowledge of history, their vision articulates great possibilities for material life and deed to inspire future heroes to action. Even with bards, the thing itself is the glorious heights reached, problems solved, dreams manifested, and great lives lived with such vitality and power that they become legends. Even if your aim is only to inspire others, the best propaganda is the propaganda of the deed.
The symbolic world of spectacle that passes for “culture” is just a shadow-play on the wall of the cave. It’s fake. But somewhere outside the false shadow world of cultural forms, there is a true world of hard material reality where great things are accomplished. The only value of cultural ideas is their ability to inform action in this true world. And because mass communication about complex new ideas is impossible, whatever ideas you have can only directly affect your own actions and those of your collaborators. This is the discipline of materialism. If you want anything of true excellence done, don’t bother with indirect cultural strategies. You yourself have to create the world you want to see. Only direct action gets the goods.
You Want a Materially Competent Regime
Some weeks later, I met another young man who had embarked on a similar journey to change the culture. “I want to live in a world where great things are possible. We need to inspire people to have that optimism again.”
This is a common way of thinking. I have heard this idea of cultural optimism repeated many times. The reason people come to it is that they can see that the culture out there is very sick.
You look back on the legends of times gone by and see that we once accomplished great things, whether it be landing on the moon or dredging up a new island in the San Francisco Bay. You see that your people were once healthy and strong, optimistic and vital, and that they used to master the means of production.
You are inspired because you can see the possibilities. But you look around and see that we now are too tied up in red tape to accomplish anything at all. Your neighbors are atomized, unhealthy, mentally ill, and strung out on drugs and bad ideology. You see politics and geopolitics spiraling into disaster. A great cloud of spiritual malaise hangs over our society, and you can feel its oppression. If only there were some optimistic ray of light in culture! If only other people could see the possibilities too.
But it wasn’t the optimism and popular appreciation for progress that created that past material health. It is the other way around: it is only once the heroes come home with the loot and tales of great deeds that the public ever catches on that great things are possible. And in the absence of a healthy outlet for their optimism, the public warmed up for adventure only gets sold false hopes by demagogues and out-of-control planning bureaus. Many of the pathological black holes of today’s society were the optimism-fueled grand projects of yesterday. It’s better to focus on the desired material outcome itself, targeting it carefully and directly.
The question before us, then, is not how to inspire a vital culture but how to directly build a physically healthy society. What kind of world do you want to live in, and how can you build that world by your own hand? What are the technical possibilities?
The great ages of materially healthy society and the great accomplishments of the past you admire were the products of competent and unencumbered governing regimes. It wasn’t the optimism. It wasn’t the culture. It wasn’t even the competent people having good ideas. It was the opening of political possibility for competent people to carry out their visions. That’s what makes the difference.
Some change in the regime, gradual or sudden, freed up the creative energies of their societies. When we see some great act of energy and confidence in history, it’s because some group of highly competent people with good ideas achieved the power to simply fix things. To create a materially healthy society, you need a competent and unencumbered high-energy regime.
Occasional crack-ups and crisis points in history provide openings for visionary players to step in and change the course of events by building such regimes. Caesar took advantage of a crisis in the Roman Republic, Napoleon took advantage of the French Revolution, and Franklin D. Roosevelt took advantage of the Great Depression. But their ability to do so critically depended on having a cadre of new elites to staff their government and carry out their programs. Caesar had his legions, Napoleon had the rising bourgeoisie and his mass armies, and FDR had a new class of intellectuals and managers from the elite universities. Like von Braun with his steely-eyed missile men, they didn’t just have the energy and ideas, they had a network of practitioners with a living discipline of the craft to draw on.
There will be future crack-ups and future attempts at radical reform and the possibility of great accomplishments in our time. The current settlement is too sick to be sustainable. But the crucial ingredient that will make the difference will be some new class of elites with a discipline of craft capable of actually achieving the great things you want to see in the world. Given the existence of such a class, they could rapidly be pulled into service when the inevitable crises hit. In their absence, there will only be slow decline and the crisis moments will be futile.
Why Tech Doesn’t Rule America
Unfortunately, no governance-grade outsider class yet exists in America. The closest we have is the “tech”-adjacent venture capital-backed startup ecosystem. Here, thousands of highly competent but politically alienated leaders regularly build institutions to solve real material problems, executing fast and hard against all obstacles, be they human or technical. They do well. But the tech class has not developed capability in real politics nor any viable political strategy. The individual-interest, high-leverage, venture-backed entrepreneurial approach doesn’t transfer to politics, so they remain shut out. They remain under the thumb of ideologies, political networks, and governance structures that are not their own.
This is well-known, too. You can’t walk two blocks in San Francisco without tripping over some entrepreneur working on the next big thing that they think will ultimately have a political impact. Everyone knows that tech needs to figure out how to fix the city and fix America. Take, for example, the young entrepreneur in my story above. Or the next one three weeks later. Or the dozens of other friends who have compressed their political ambitions into the shape of business projects. All of them want to see the ecosystem of tech entrepreneurship lend its competence to governance.
It’s the right problem to focus on, but all their projects have a fatal commonality—they over-rely on the legal and ideological structures provided to them by the system. This is visible in the kinds of projects they undertake.
City governance is a good example. The tech-adjacent solution to city governance is a startup city, usually imagined in a more permissive legal environment than the U.S. That’s everything from seasteading to charter cities. The key assumption is that you can rely on contracts to retain ownership of what you build. That assumption serves you well in VC, where you are backed by hundreds of years of precedents in American corporate law. But holding a city is a much more political matter than holding a Delaware C-corp, with no guarantees whatsoever.
Singapore is the fantasy girlfriend of startup city fans. But its founder, Lee Kuan Yew, did not hold Singapore just because he happened to be in charge. Nor did he get in charge just by having good ideas, making a special treatment deal with the local sovereign, or building the place from scratch. He took and kept Singapore because he had that iron in him and crushed his opposition. He became the local sovereign directly. He could go toe-to-toe with hostile media, maintain the loyalty of the people and his elite cadres, and establish ideological and legal power structures without relying on anyone else’s backing.
Conversely, the whole reason for trying to do startup cities is that the American tech class does not have the ability to crush its enemies and has no hope of developing it. They do not have that iron in them, or at least don’t know how to use it yet. They do not have the ability to create their own legal-ideological frame of reference and aggressively prosecute it. Instead, the aspiring founder operates entirely from within a frame of sovereignty provided by someone else.
You could rebuild those atrophied political muscles by finding ways to operate outside those legal assumptions, but tech is also ideologically incapable of non-capitalist coordination. In fact, it’s practically defined by its key coordination mechanism—equity stake in VC-backed for-profit enterprises. In startups, you all work together because when the collective line goes up, your individual line goes up too. You don’t have to worry too much about long-term trust because you own your shares. You keep them even if you walk away, and property law makes sure everyone respects that. But in political ventures there’s no legal ownership, and thus no support for the main coordination mechanism of the tech class.
Whatever system of stake and trust you build for political enterprise has to be autonomous from any outside legal backing. This is because it is politics that creates law, because legal mechanisms can become politicized against you, and because there can be no third-party law of the essential matters in politics like trust and comradeship. This means your system of political coordination has to look like some hopefully virtuous mixture of honor culture, religion, fraternal orders, clannishness, chivalry, party ideological discipline, and so on. But note that these other coordination mechanisms are dependent on ethical systems and value outlooks different from American liberalism.
In other words, any mode of coordination fit for politics will demand an ideological reeducation that establishes a moral outlook superior to American financial individualism. It cannot afford to be ethically dependent on American corporate and property law in its basic coordination logic. It must be capable of creating its own such logic. Tech-adjacent “politics” is fundamentally defeated by its own bourgeois value outlook before the game even starts. It can’t coordinate on the actual substance of political projects.
But all this discussion of new regimes, new classes, and missing coordination mechanisms only provides us with the theoretical backdrop for the key question: what material activity should you be pursuing to directly create the world you want to see? What is actually to be done?
Our direct-action materialism has an easy answer: if you want to see dynamic governance in the world pulling off great works of public value creation, then you should be directly taking on the responsibility to govern and pursue those works.
But this sounds naïve. How can you govern before attaining power? You need an egg to make a chicken, and a chicken to make an egg. Fortunately, America’s tech class has developed many fine skills for precisely this problem, which is just the problem of entrepreneurship. In this case, it could be called entrepreneurial statecraft.
In entrepreneurship, you pick some problem out there in the world and start solving it. You find some piece of the future that is missing and take a bold bet on building it. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem, but once you’re considering particular material problems and looking for efficient strategies to get traction on them, you find that there are many ways in. You don’t need permission from on high. You don’t need immense capital. You just need a good strategy and good execution.
In entrepreneurial statecraft, you find a governance problem. It’s some institution that needs to be built or renovated, a situation that needs leadership, or some under-provisioned public good. You study the field of such problems and their possible solutions until you’ve built up sufficient understanding to take a bet on a particular strategy. You start solving the problem and capture some of the return.
Unlike capitalist entrepreneurship, your return is mostly not in property. It’s in experience with your comrades, trust, network connections, knowledge, reputation, and institutions under your gang’s control. This intangible capital can’t be directly exchanged for land and cattle any more than money can be exchanged for trust or reputation, but it can be reinvested into bigger and better projects. The key missing ingredient is the creativity to see ways of accumulating returns and coordinating with comrades beyond the narrow commitments of bourgeois individualism.
Suppose, for example, that instead of exiting to some questionable foreign jurisdiction to build a startup city, you decided to directly target the material job that you actually want done: you want someone to govern an American city much better than has been seen in living memory. You need to have that LKY iron in you to hold a city anyways, so why not just become the LKY of an existing city? That’s hard, but so is building a new city from nothing and then having to fight to hold on to that anyways. It’s probably easier.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the essential core capability needed to develop space rockets was not scale, systems engineering, massive funding, or any of the other complexities that later became necessary. In the beginning, the key capability was liquid-fueled engines and adequate flight control systems. Oberth and von Braun’s rocket enthusiast circle dreamed of space stations and space shuttles, but the work they actually did was on engines and flight controls. To develop that expertise early on, they picked the most modest goals they could, as long as they exercised those core capabilities. Once the discipline of rocket science had mastered engines and flight controls, scale and systems integration could be added later.
In the 2020s, the essential core capability for governing a city better—or solving any essentially political governance problem—is non-capitalist political coordination techniques to hold power in institutions and use those institutions to provision public goods. It’s not a matter of winning elections, getting city or national elites on your side, or directly navigating the complicated political networks. Those will come with time. The most essential matter is being able to trust your comrades without recourse to law or mainstream value ideology as you coordinate to build, take, hold, and govern institutions.
As such, your first experiments in entrepreneurial statecraft can be very modest. Can you and your co-founders pick a local building or institution to elevate to its proper glory? Never mind the city council—can you govern anything at all? You probably can. A modest enough institutional goal feels tantalizingly within reach.
The essential, visionary skill of entrepreneurship is being able to see the through-line from that extremely modest initial traction to the grand dreams that will require a more advanced version of the same essential techniques. Given the re-investable skills and reputation from governing one institution, the next few will be larger and easier. Pick the right targets in the right sequence, and suddenly you’re a significant power before you’ve even had to think about the big picture. Now you’ve got that iron in you and you’re ready to turn your city into the city you want to see.
Governing a city, and short of that governing particular institutions within a city, would in turn develop the essential capabilities to tackle national governance. It’s not an accident that San Francisco city politics is a key feeder into state and national politics. It’s a messy, chaotic training ground in high-stakes games that ultimately develops the right virtues for this higher level of action. But this is just one example of entrepreneurial statecraft. There are many other kinds of projects.
For example, it’s well known that something is wrong with America’s food. There is an investigative problem here to definitively map out both the science and the corruption. But the real part would be the political work organizing things to actually change. Robert Moses’s empire grew out of a parks bureau. Yours could grow out of a food quality organization. “Lord,” after all, is a contraction of “loaf ward”—there is a deep connection between the legitimacy to govern and the ability to provide good food. There are many other possible projects with their own special challenges and leverages, too. How far they go is dependent on your energy, luck, and competence.
Entrepreneurial statecraft is a political project, but it’s not a movement. It’s not about culture. It’s a discipline. It’s about taking responsibility into your own personal hands, perhaps in collaboration with others who are doing the same. It’s about going out there and applying entrepreneurial techniques to statecraft problems. It’s about having the focus to avoid abstract, indirect cultural strategies and instead target materialist, direct action on the things you actually care about. It’s about getting out of the ghetto of bourgeois, liberal self-interest and building aristocratic coordination mechanisms with your comrades. It’s about seeing how monumental historical deeds of eternal fame can start from humble work on much smaller problems. If you’ve quit your job to explore, it’s a good thing to do with your life.
The discipline of rocket science itself was the activity that laid the foundation of people, expertise, and dreams that made the moon landing possible. Likewise, the discipline of entrepreneurial statecraft itself is what lays the foundation of the new class that will make up a healthy new regime. The way to build muscles is by using them. You exercise your governance muscles by governing. Get strong enough, and you’ll find work on the biggest problems.