A Response to Scott Alexander’s Response to my Response to Alexander’s Response to Neoreaction

I appreciate Scott Alexander’s willingness to address neoreactionary ideas at a deeper level than one usually finds in progressive screeds. He makes excellent points that force us neoreactionaries to sharpen our arguments and refine our positions. I wish we had more interlocutors like him. We often accuse the Left of operating in an ideological echo chamber, so we need to ensure that we are constantly deconstructing our own.

In any debate, the devil is in the details. Too often, however, we conflate the details with the debate itself. Arguments are nested within arguments, and within this nesting exists a hierarchy of importance. The crux of a debate rarely hinges on a single data point but rather on a collection of data, a preponderance of evidence, a forceful trend in one direction or the other. The tête-à-têtes that make up a debate move that force toward one position or another. But we should not confuse this small movement with an end to the debate writ large. No one is going to change his progressive or reactionary mind based on, e.g., the results of an argument about the Roman corn dole.

With all that in mind, I’ll address some points brought up by Alexander in his counter-argument, recognizing, from the outset, that many of these issues are nested within a larger argument over worldviews, and that any one of these sub-issues are but one node within a larger argumentative network. Let’s not lose the forest for the trees.

~~~

Part I. Rome. 

Alexander’s reformulation of his original argument brings me into almost entire agreement with him. He writes:

The original question was whether ancient Rome could be called a progressive society. I say it was. Scharlach objects that it wasn’t, because it didn’t have the particular brand of progressive philosophy we do today. But I respond that the philosophy is irrelevant to what we presumably care about – social policies and social outcomes. Policies (like welfare) and outcomes (like the existence of a large class of welfare-dependent poor) were the same in classical Rome and modern America, and for the same reasons. Therefore, it is correct and useful to call classical Rome an early progressive society, though with the obvious caveat that it did not go as far in that direction as our own.

I did indeed object to the labeling of Rome as “progressive” because Rome “didn’t have the particular brand of progressive philosophy we do today.” I don’t think Alexander negates my objection. Rather, he simply argues that my point is irrelevant—“philosophy is irrelevant to . . . social policies and social outcomes.” The title of my original post was The Motives of Social Policy. Ergo, my entire post is irrelevant. However, the way Alexander re-frames this question of social policies and outcomes, I agree that my post is irrelevant. Let’s not quibble over semantics, Alexander says, providing instead a wonderfully Machiavellian analysis of “progressive” societies wherever they may be found and whatever their political ideals:

According to legend, Frederick the Great declared of his conquests: “I will begin by taking. I shall find scholars later to demonstrate my perfect right” (okay, Reactionaries, I will admit Frederick the Great was hella cool). If Frederick was in the welfare business, he might have said “I will begin by giving welfare. Later, I will find scholars to come up with a philosophy supporting welfare.” . . .

I’m sure if Frederick conquered both classical Rome and 21st-century America, his Roman supporters would declare he was following the will of Jupiter, and his American supporters would declare he was trying to help disprivileged minorities.

Indeed! Most neoreactionaries strain to make this same point: progressive lip-service to “social justice” is in fact conquest by other means (c.f., e.g., demographic history of Los Angeles or Detroit). Progressivism is about grasping power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict. I am in total agreement with Alexander here.

Alexander also writes:

States that are militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized tend to adopt progressive policies (here I am confusingly lumping some values like multiculturalism in as policies, but you know what I mean). Ancient Rome and modern America are both militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized.

Again, I am in complete agreement on this point. Just now I wrote that progressivism is the means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict. Societies that cannot afford conflict are precisely the successful and secure ones. Neither neoreactionaries nor Black Panthers are going to war because that might cost them their Netflix and Starbucks, not to mention the USG would be quick to throw them all in jail.

One more time, then: Progressivism is the political means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict because it has become urbanized and economically advanced. For example, in a society in which blacks, mestizos, whites, Jews, and Asians all live within a few hundred yards of one another, and they all live relatively comfortable lives, sheltered by a strong economy and national military . . . why the hell would you light the fire of ethnic tensions in that society? Much better to circulate false memes about equality and acceptance. These memes keep the ethnic tensions in check. Who knows? Maybe some day all the ethnics will actually believe these bullshit memes. Someday . . . In the meantime, it’s enough that they pretend they believe them, so that everyone can enjoy their Netflix.

~~~

One small point of continuing disagreement with Alexander over the Rome question. He writes:

If [Scharlach’s] essay is trying to compare the grateful Roman poor and the entitled, demanding modern poor, I propose that the Roman recipients of the annona were as entitled and demanding as any modern.

They may have been equally demanding, but what they were demanding was very, very different. I can feel sympathy for an underclass that demands its right to basic food items. I can feel no sympathy for an underclass that demands its right to, e.g., free tax credits for purchasing $2500 hand bags.

~~~

Part II. Alexander’s Progressive Values Equation. 

This whole discussion is interesting enough, but it is mostly valuable as an entry point into a more basic discussion about the emergence of progressive values. Alexander provides an equation for this emergence:

Urbanization + Growth -> Social Change -> Progressive Values

(really the “social change” node should be called “pressure for social change”, and it and the “progressive values” node should have little circular arrows both pointing at each other, but let’s keep it simple)

He provides an example of his equation:

A 25th century historian, looking back at our own age, might notice two things. She would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, everyone started getting very fat. And she would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, the “fat acceptance movement” started to become significant. She might conclude, very rationally, that some people started a fat acceptance movement, it was successful, and so everyone became very fat.

With clearer knowledge of our era, we know better. We know that people started getting fat for, uh, reasons. It seems to have a lot to do with the greater availability and better taste of fatty, sugary foods. It might also have to do with complicated biological reasons like hormone disrupters in our plastics. But we have excellent evidence it’s not because of the fat acceptance movement, which started long after obesity rates began to increase. If we really needed to prove it, we could investigate whether obesity is more common in populations with good access to fat acceptance memes (like, uh, Wal-Mart shoppers and American Samoans).

To us early-21st century-ites, it’s pretty clear why the fat acceptance movement started now. Its natural demographic is fat people, there are more fat people around to support it, they feel like they have strength in numbers. and non-fat people are having trouble stigmatizing fat people because it’s much harder to stigmatize a large group than a small group (no pun intended).

Once more, I broadly agree with Alexander here. Now, at some point, once the progressive values are in circulation, a feedback mechanism emerges that accelerates the social change. But Alexander is correct that before those values enter wide circulation, certain social, political, or demographic conditions must already be in place. Obviously! There needs to be fat people for there to be a fat acceptance movement. (Likewise, there needs to be a lot of people divorcing and already-progressive divorce law before you get no-fault divorce.)

Let’s input some specifics into Alexander’s equation relating to fat acceptance. We could quibble about the inputs, of course, but this is just an illustration:

Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Progressive Values (fat acceptance movement)

I agree with this equation, but I agree with it as a purely descriptive matter. The equation captures how progressive values emerge from diverse material conditions, but as a normative matter, I think this equation is precisely the problem. Once Social Change and Progressive Values enter into a feedback loop, sooner or later, there is no incentive to combat the inputs leading to the emergence of that feedback loop. Again, as a normative matter, I don’t think that “obesity” is a value my culture should adhere to, and I certainly don’t want to see people “optimizing for obesity.” But that is what may be happening. Why? See the equation.

To combat the feedback loop, you need to combat its inputs, if possible. How do you combat the inputs in the equation above? There are many ways to do it, but one way not to do it is to foster the progressive value of fat acceptance. If obesity deserves our respect and acceptance, then what incentive exists to combat the root causes of obesity? We might for a while pay lip service to the idea that “well, fat acceptance is not about refusing to combat obesity but about being nice to fat people. We want both!” You can’t have both. If a society decides to be nice to X, then X it will accept and X it will have because X will eventually become normalized. Indeed, isn’t that what the fat acceptance movement is all about? Normalizing fatness? That is the end result of Alexander’s Progressive Values Equation: normalization.

Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Progressive Values (fat acceptance movement) = Normalization (fat is a normal and legally protected way of life) 

I would rather see the following equation:

Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Reactionary Values (tough love on the obese) = Incentives (combat sedentary lifestyle, sugary foods; surgery; etc.)

Now, obesity is largely genetic, so I don’t think we should shame fat people any more than we should shame low-IQ students for dropping out of high school. Fat Shaming Week was about pushing back against the normalization of obesity, not about making fun of fat girls. However, by responding to Social Change (more fat people) with Reactionary Values (tough love on the obese), the end result is not normalization of obesity but the creation of a society in which fat people want to combat their own fatness to the best of their ability, with help and support from the skinnies who have set the anti-obesity standard. Will all obese people lose weight? Of course not. Like I said, there are obvious genetic issues involved, as well as intractable environmental issues. But there will be more weight loss and less obesity in general in a world that responds to increased obesity rates with Reaction rather than Universal Progressive Acceptance. And I think that, up until now, America has generally responded to obesity in a wonderfully right-wing manner. As I said, the fat acceptance movement is still fringe. The only fat people I know who want to be accepted as such are my far-left colleagues; my Spanish family is quite large, but all of them actively try not to be, and some have been quite successful.

~~~

The fat acceptance movement is still fringe, but growing (heh heh). It may grow very quickly because we live in a hyper-mediated world in which memes circulate swiftly. However, will it grow because there are more fat people?

Alexander seems to imply that numbers drive this emergence, from social change, of progressive values of acceptance:

To us early-21st century-ites, it’s pretty clear why the fat acceptance movement started now. Its natural demographic is fat people, there are more fat people around to support it, they feel like they have strength in numbers. and non-fat people are having trouble stigmatizing fat people because it’s much harder to stigmatize a large group than a small group (no pun intended).

Indeed there are more fat people around today. But what do we mean by “more”? As I discussed in this post:

The population increases, but the percentage of people committing themselves to political movements probably stays the same. But . . . math: the population increases, the percentage stays the same, but nevertheless the raw number of people getting involved in politics increases. Conservatives in their 70s and 80s are asking themselves, “Where did all these wierdos come from?” There is not a higher percentage of people than ever feeding their bizarre Rights fetish; but there are more people from which the same percentage of political malcontents can be gathered. Ergo, seemingly more wierdos with a Rights fetish. And they are the people who matter. Neither the nation at large nor the fickle politicians notice the 90% not agitating for political movements; they notice the 10% who do. They’re the few, the proud, the Neopuritans with a megaphone and an attitude that says, ‘by any means necessary.’

More fat people are not needed to fuel a fat acceptance movement. More fat people willing to start and agitate for a fat acceptance movement are needed to fuel a fat acceptance movement. But there needn’t be very many of them. I think Alexander is wrong to implicate Social Change with large numbers of people. If it were a matter of numbers, the LGBT movement should never have gotten off the ground. Only about 5% of the population is LGBT, and certainly only a small percentage of that already small percentage is willing to agitate for LGBT rights. If you add in the straight “allies,” maybe you get back to 5% of the whole population agitating for LGBT rights. Yes, 5% of 300 million is a lot of people, but it’s not a lot of people given the total population.

The conclusion I draw is that the influence of political agitation does not control for total population size. This fact is the basis of pressure politics. Pressure politics—and its latest manifestation, “shame politics”—relies on that relatively small percentage of the population that is bored or unemployed enough to commit to political agitation. The progressives win because they know pressure politics. They know how to control the breeze to create the appearance of a storm, which ends up causing a real storm. Progressives know they don’t need ‘the people’—an empty rhetorical concept—they just need a few percent of the people. And they need just one percent of that few percent to agitate, to scare CEOs into firing people, to scare politicians into voting for progressive policy.

Alexander’s equation is incomplete. He seems to assume that Social Change will be widespread, and the widespread nature of Social Change leads to Progressive Values, a natural emergence. But the change needn’t be widespread at all. In terms of pure percentages, there are no more LGBT individuals (or blacks, for that matter) in America today than there were 100 years ago. It should, in Alexander’s terms, still be easy to stigmatize these small groups. In reality, though, people lose their jobs and are socially shunned if they stigmatize these groups.

Small groups with great political Voice. A progressive thing. Which would be fine if these groups were agitating to terra-form Mars or build a Death Star. They aren’t. What are they doing instead? Go back to the strategy with which we started:

Progressivism is the political means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict because it has become urbanized and economically advanced.

Neoreaction is, in part, the realization that progressivism is power politics among groups who don’t think they have enough power and are putting all their energy (and, ultimately, the nation’s energy) into gaining the power they believe is rightly theirs. Left unchecked, this progressive impulse can lead nowhere but down, into cultural and intellectual decline—just like Rome.

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13 responses

  1. Pingback: Hacking Technological Determinism for Fun and Profit | More Right

  2. “… just like Rome.” — He does seem to have invited that (lethal) zinger.

    November 6, 2013 at 3:40 am

  3. Alexander Stanislaw

    This excellent post is cheapened by the final sentence. Roman progressive policies came hundreds of years before its collapse. If progressivism means that the West has _only_ another several hundred years of prosperity, I’m not particularly worried.

    November 6, 2013 at 5:16 am

    • I couldn’t resist 😉 But I try to leave my rhetorical flourishes for the end, so feel free not to take it seriously.

      However, reading about the 4th and 5th centuries, what does one find? Increased state control and less private spending on local infrastructure; higher taxation (though a few emperors tried in vain to lower tax burdens and reign in spending, e.g., Julianus); a complete inability to deal with non-Romans and refugees; confiscation of property by Christians who were trying to get their ‘social justice’ after three centuries of persecution and marginalization; non-Romans being recruited into the military, with generally disastrous results . . .

      November 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm

  4. Why does this post not have 5,000 replies already? This whole thing is fucking brilliant.

    November 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    • It’s a bit long, I guess. But thanks for the compliment!

      November 7, 2013 at 12:01 am

  5. Alexander Irwin

    The endurance of the Roman welfare empire for centuries after the collapse of the Republic is not a refutation of Scharlach’s thesis. The death of the Republic spelled the death of open deliberation amongst the elites–the assassination of the Gracchi was the opening act in the fall of Rome because force was demonstrated to be superior to analysis. Everything afterwards was a working of the will to power, and even though the legions accomplished glorious triumphs for the benefit of the elites, the condition of the mass of the population was one of increasing immiseration and political marginalization, especially when one considers the welfare of the populations sacked in order to fund first the corrupted political campaign puppet shows by which the factional leaders competed in the last century of the Republic and then the bread and circuses regime of the Claudians and the Good Emperors.

    We are impressed by their marble ruins, but ignore the wasteful carnage necessary for its production.

    November 6, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    • I’m not nearly enough of a classicist to weigh in too heavily on this question. But I think you’re right that to understand Rome’s story fully, we need to look at the transition from Republic to Empire as carefully as the transition from Empire to Decline.

      November 7, 2013 at 12:00 am

    • That ini’thgss perfect for what I need. Thanks!

      March 10, 2017 at 6:17 am

  6. Maybe mainstream conservatives are starting to “get it”.

    “Liberalism as practiced in today’s America is a chimera, not actually an ideology but an alliance of interest groups controlled by elites for the preservation of their (the elites’) wealth and power.”

    http://pjmedia.com/rogerlsimon/2013/11/05/liberalism-the-decline-of-an-illusion/

    November 6, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    • This is excellent. Neoreactionary ideas are making their way into (slightly) more mainstream venues. Actually, I think Sailer has posted to some comments made by Malkin and/or Coulter that inch in the same direction.

      November 7, 2013 at 12:06 am

  7. Alexander Irwin

    What’s generally overlooked about the fall of the Republic is that it marked the end of classical Roman culture and the onset of decadence. The civil wars of Marius and Sulla and the following triumvirs extinguished the great senatorial families; the civil wars ended only when Octavian had destroyed or coopted all opposition into servility. Even the military triumphs which fueled the legions demonstrated their limits within the reign of Octavian, when the legions proved incapable of securing Germania (because the Germans had nothing worth plundering to keep the armies going).

    The professional Marian legions were the cancerous tumor which destroyed Rome, consuming more and more resources as the complete reliance of the emperors on the legions for gaining and keeping power demanded conversion of the empire to a declining military command economy, completed in the reign of Diocletian. Although the patient appeared vigorous during the early onset–the way a cancer patient may initially seem more fit because of weight loss–the condition was in fact terminal.

    November 7, 2013 at 3:31 pm

  8. unknown128

    To describe ancient Rome as “progressive” (I think in another post he calls Athens progressive and Sparta reactionary despite for instance greater “womens rights” in sparta) combining safty and urbanisation with what we identifie with progressivism is very problematic….ancient Rome was extremly patriarchal with women having very few rights up till the later empire (when the decline of material wealth already started to set in) and laws diferentiated even among citezens between “superior and inferior” so the free bread had a price to acsept inferiority (often combined with a client relation to a “superior” roman), showing why ideas do mater (today ofcourse your still “equal” even if you get welfare). Also Rome became less democratic while it became richer, with the military dictatorships of the 1st century BCE replaced by the principat of the comon era. While indeed there was a rise in sexual deviance in the roman upper class, the state fought against it and it was almost fully limited to men who satisfied their desires by “opressing” everyone else. I dont think thats what most leftists would see as “progressive”.

    Now Alexanders idea of afluent/safe = progressive and poor/threatened = conservative is contradicted by many primitive tribes who have far more “progressive” gender and sexual norms then ancient rome did and also more democracy (see for instance the typical “warior democracy” of the germanic tribes, in some tribes even women could participate in the warrior assemblies) and social suport for the disadvanteged (primitive tribes often have strong social suport systems). So while many primitive and warlike societies were “progressive” many quiet afluent societies (in comparison) were very conservative, see for instance victorian britain or much of Feudal japan or imperial china or much of the Muslim world in its high days….I realy very often depended on the particular ideology dominant in the society and not on the rate of its afluence.

    to be honest I was surprised how misleading many of Alexanders historical examples were, how he used interpretations fiting his view and often grosly overgeneralized and put a simple one dimensional explanation on a complex and multi dimensional phenomen.

    Sorry for my bad english, Im not a native speaker, but I am a historian though.

    April 10, 2015 at 7:57 pm

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