“Christianity is dead” is an extreme categorical statement with which one can quibble, but one cannot deny that Christianity has lost whatever power it once possessed to guide civilization. As a political force, it is non-existent. It is even less powerful than that ancient gathering of a few dissident Jews in Palestine. At least they had potential force.
Reactionaries who think they can “revive” the religion of their ancestors, who think they can “restore” their throne and altar, are forgetting the core neoreactionary insight: the degenerative ratchet. Once something embarks on leftward movement (as Christianity has done since, at least, the Reformation), there can be no stopping its leftward movement. One cannot go back along the same leftward path. The way out of the degenerative ratchet cannot be the way in.
Ultimately, those who use the language of “return” or “regeneration” or “restoration” seek only one thing: to turn back the clock on Christianity. Back to the 1950s. Back to the 1850s. Back before that drunken German monk ruined everything. It doesn’t matter when. Volver. The idea is to move backward along the leftward path, to move rightward once again, to return, to go back to some point in the past before the leftward movement became so extreme. The idea is to get out the way we came in. Which is impossible.
The only way to stop the leftward movement—the degenerative ratchet—of Christianity is . . . catastrophe.
A degenerative ratchet can only progress, until it cannot go on, and it stops. What happens next is something else—it’s Outside. Moldbug calls it a reboot. History can tell us to expect it, but not what we are to expect.
. . . This is why NRx is dark. The only way out of a degenerative ratchet is catastrophe.
Does the Bible itself not bear this out? God does not return His people peacefully to Eden. God reboots. God resets. Catastrophically. When He saw that all of mankind had fallen into utter degeneracy, he sent a world-destroying Flood, rebooted the earth, and began a completely new covenant with Noah. Whenever Israel misbehaves in the Bible, God scatters it. And what else is Jesus’ Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection but the complete turning-on-its-head of everything Israel had expected? What else is the Gospel but a complete reset of the “kingly” Messianic expectation? God does not return things to a golden age of the past. He lets things fester until He decides they can’t fester any longer, then He washes everything clean in a divine catastrophe.
There can be no “return” for Christianity. There can be no “restoration” of some imagined pagan past. The degenerative ratchet has done its work, and we can’t look behind us down that already-traveled road. Better to look forward to the generative catastrophe ahead.
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.
Everyone has read Scott Alexanders’ anti-reactionary FAQ. Handle is probably right not to let Alexander frame the debate by responding directly. However, one issue Alexander brings up is something I’ve thought about addressing myself, so I may as well address it in response to his FAQ. It has to do with the genealogy of progressivism.
Moldbug and most neoreactionaries situate progressivism within post-Reformation Protestantism, claiming that the nearest ancestor of contemporary progressivism is 19th century millennial theology. Alexander wrongly associates our genealogy with Calvinism: “So please, tell me again how utopian desires for peace and social justice were invented wholesale by John Calvin in 1550,” he writes. I don’t know anyone who claimed that, and if someone did, I would thoroughly disagree with him.
However, Alexander’s larger point is that social policies that look an awful lot like modern progressive policies clearly existed before the Reformation. He travels back to Rome to prove it:
The ideals commonly called progressive predate Calvin by several millennia. Consider the example of Rome. The early Romans not only overthrew their kings in a popular revolution and instituted a Republic, but experienced five plebian secessions (read: giant nationwide strikes aiming at greater rights for the poor). After the first, the Roman government created the position of tribune, a representative for the nation’s poor with significant power in the government. After the third, the government passed a sort of bill of rights guaranteeing the poor protection against arbitrary acts of government. After the fifth, the government passed the Lex Hortensiana, which said that plebians could hold a referendum among themselves and the results would be binding on the entire populace, rich and poor alike. By the later Empire, even slaves were guaranteed certain rights, including the right to file complaints against their masters.
The Romans pioneered the modern welfare state, famously memorialized by its detractors as panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Did you know welfare reform was a major concern of Julius Caesar? That ancient Rome probably had a higher percent of its population on the dole than modern New York? That the Romans basically worshipped a goddess of food stamps?
. . . Equality has a clear antecedent in the plebian secessions of ancient Rome, peace in the Pax Romana, social justice in the Roman welfare system, and community in…well, it’s so broadly defined here that it could be anything, but if we’re going to make it the leadership of benevolent public servants, let’s just throw in a reference to the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic (yeah, fine, it’s Greek. It still counts)
First, it’s problematic to associate the plebian secessions with “strikes aimed at greater rights for the poor.” The plebian strikes were in fact aimed at greater rights for plebians, who could be wealthier than the patricians. Most of them were what today we would call the lower-middle and middle classes. Alexander is playing fast and loose with his definitions, as he does in most of his FAQ.
The more important point worth looking at is Alexander’s discussion of the Roman welfare state. Alexander could easily have looked outside ancient Rome to find examples of what he calls “progressivism.” E.g., in Islamic society during the age of the Caliphate, or in the charity policies designed by the Church in the Middle Ages. But the question is: do these seemingly “progressive” policies stem from what today we would consider progressivism? Do they have anything to do with “social justice”? We should remember that when looking back at history, curious similarities arise, but they do so at incongruous joints, and their existence may not signify anything but the fact that large-scale political ecologies have limited practical expressions. Think of it this way: A society whose political discourse and ideals sanction welfare to the poor because it is believed that the underclass is genetically inferior, incapable of taking care of itself, and might revolt if not given enough food . . . that’s a very different society from one whose political ideals sanction welfare because it is believed the poor have a right to good living standards or that the poor deserve welfare because it re-distributes goods rightly theirs but taken from them through an oppressive economic system.
Contemporary progressive policies emerge from ideals and discourses about morality, justice, oppression, and rights. The poor (especially the dark-skinned poor) deserve the welfare they get; it is theirs by Constitutional right. It is a moral and political imperative not to take away the welfare they receive and to give them more if possible. Progressives actively try to alleviate the shame once associated with receiving welfare. Pointing out that the poor in America have it pretty good is a distinctly right-wing thing to do. “Food stamps” are now “EBT cards” that look and function like debit cards. Medicaid patients sit in the same waiting rooms as patients paying high insurance premiums, and you can’t tell the difference. (Well, you can, but . . .) Welfare in America has become a right, a moral imperative, a matter of justice and just desserts, a thing that brings no shame, a thing to be proud of, a thing to demand, a thing to stand up for.
When categorizing social policy, the motives and ideas behind a policy are just as important as the policy itself. Among the ancient Israelites, slaves and indentured servants were freed every 50 years, during Jubilee. But obviously, Jubilee should not be compared to 19th century abolitionist movements. Roughly similar policy. Very different motives. And a very different context. Abolitionists did not argue that the slaves should be freed and the fields laid fallow because the Sabbath demands rest and that, as servants of God, men should not always be bound to serve both man and God. The moral fervor of abolitionists was cranked up much higher than that and drew from new and radical Protestant theologies that mostly eschewed the Bible. The Good Book is clear that, outside of Jubilee, slavery and servitude are fine with God as long as masters treat their slaves decently. (But as far as I know, not a single abolitionist took the position that slavery needn’t be abolished as long as laws were passed to ensure the better treatment of slaves.)
So Scott Alexander is correct that social policies in ancient Rome look similar to contemporary progressive welfare policies. But were the motives the same? Did the poor and the plebians get free or reduced-cost corn, grain, wine, and olive oil . . . . because they deserved it? because it was theirs by moral and legal right? because it was a matter of social justice?
I’m not a classicist, so I’m willing to be corrected on this, but as near as I can tell, the Roman dole was wrapped up in discourses about a) the might and wealth of Rome and b) goddess worship. Welfare policies in ancient Rome were built upon very different ideals and emerged from very different motives than contemporary progressivism’s welfare policies. Nowhere have I been able to fine a discussion of the Roman congiarium in terms of rights or justice. The dole was there because it made the emperor more popular and demonstrated the wealth of Rome to the people. What’s more, the dole was personified as Annona, a goddess to be worshiped and thanked. Scott Alexander even recognizes this difference in motive when he says that ancient Romans “worshiped a goddess of food stamps.”
Indeed they did. And that’s the whole point. When was the last time you heard welfare policies discussed in terms of worshipful gratitude, mercy, and thankfulness? If that were the discourse surrounding welfare policy, America would be a very different country. It seems that Roman welfare and American welfare are as different from one another as Jubilee is from abolitionism.
It’s difficult to question the progress of technology and science. However, during the aptly named Progressive Era, the inexorable march of sci/tech became confused with the inexorable march of moral progress. The two shapes of time—moral and technological progress—became interlinked. Looking back at this interlinkage, i find much to admire in its resultant philosophy. I don’t agree with it entirely, of course, but it’s better than the progressivism of today. A Cathedral cleric writes about it disapprovingly:
It is a Whiggish temptation to regard progressive thought of a century ago as akin to contemporary progressivism. But, befitting the protean nature of the American reform tradition, the original progressives entertained views that today’s progressives, if they knew of them, would reject as decidedly unprogressive. In particular, the progressives of a century ago viewed the industrial poor and other economically marginal groups with great ambivalence. Progressive Era economic reform saw the poor as victims in need of uplift but also as threats requiring social control, a fundamental tension that manifested itself most conspicuously in the appeal to inferior heredity as a scientific basis for distinguishing the poor worthy of uplift from the poor who should be regarded as threats to economic health and well-being.
So, while progressives did advocate for labor, they also depicted many groups of workers as undeserving of uplift, indeed as the cause rather than the consequence of low wages. While progressives did advocate for women’s rights, they also promoted a vision of economic and family life that would remove women from the labor force, the better to meet women’s obligations to be “mothers of the race,” and to defer to the “family wage”. While progressives did oppose biological defenses of laissez-faire, many also advocated eugenics, the social control of human heredity (Leonard 2005b). While progressives did advocate for peace, some founded their opposition to war on its putatively dysgenic effects, and others championed American military expansion into Cuba and the Philippines, and the country’s entry into the First World War. And, while progressives did seek to check corporate power, many also admired the scientifically planned corporation of Frederick Winslow Taylor, even regarding it as an organizational exemplar for their program of reform. Viewed from today, it is the original progressives’ embrace of human hierarchy that seems most objectionable. American Progressive Era eugenics was predicated upon human hierarchy, and the Progressive Era reformers drawn to eugenics believed that some human groups were inferior to others, and that evolutionary science explained and justified their theories of human hierarchy.
It sounds to me like the progressivism of the Progressive Era had yet to become one-eyed. Scientific and moral progress were coupled together, which meant that, for a brief moment in American history, one ideal kept the other’s excesses in check. This explains people like Margaret Sanger, who believed in the moral progress of racial equality but also realized that, empirically, the best way to achieve racial equality was through serious eugenic policies for blacks.
Today, in practice and in reality, moral and scientific progress are completely de-coupled. This explains people like [insert random progressive here], who believe in the moral progress of racial equality but have no empirical foundation for bringing it about, and so resort to a magical defensive tactic (“institutional racism!”) to explain why the good magic hasn’t happened yet. Today’s progressives are often outright hostile to notions of scientific progress.
Nevertheless, despite the reality, in today’s progressive and popular imaginations, moral and technological progress still are one and the same, inextricably linked. This is an epiphany I had while teaching class today. I overheard some students talking, and they seemed to reject a right-wing position as quickly and thoughtlessly as though they were rejecting the use of horse-and-buggy as a means of transportation to tonight’s sorority party. “Oh, people just don’t think that way anymore” or “We’ve moved beyond that kind of philistine thought” or “That is so how my grandfather talks!” As though notions of sovereign borders were as quaint as Ptolemaic cosmology.
Moral and technological progress are two non-overlapping time-shapes. The latter is empirically observable, the former is either a fiction or a temporary reprieve from Hobbesian violence safeguarded by high-trust civilizations. In the American Progressive Era, they were coupled together, with interesting and not entirely unsatisfactory results. Today, we operate only with the Progressive Era’s belief in moral progress, but this belief is, among the progressive elite, de-coupled from a concomitant belief in scientific and technological progress. No more checks and balances. The one-eyed, headlong pursuit of the Moral Prize hurtles us toward Left Singularity.
I watched Ken Burns’ Prohibition a few months ago, and ever since, I’ve been trying to write a post about it. It’s an excellent documentary.
Burns, as far as I can tell, is the kind of progressive (not a radical) whose white guilt doesn’t run too deep and whose progressivism is honestly built on idealism rather than resentment. However, he is still a progressive. I was therefore surprised at the honesty of Prohibition, which makes it perfectly clear that the 18th amendment came from the same progressive furor that brought us abolition and women’s suffrage.
Sailer points out in today’s Taki column that the coupling of women’s suffrage and prohibition seems odd to us today. If we expand the coupling to a trifecta—women’s suffrage, prohibition, abolition—the one in the middle seems even more out of place. If we expand it even further—women’s suffrage, prohibition, abolition, federal income tax, democratic election of senators, labor laws—then we have the pantheon of the early progressive religion. But only one of them failed. And today, ironically, prohibition, the progressive failure, stands in many people’s minds as the example par excellence of inappropriate (read: conservative) federal intrusion into local life. That abolition, federal income tax, labor laws, or women’s suffrage might likewise be examples of federal intrusions into local life is an insane right-wing suggestion.
Some cleric at Slate writes:
This is one of the first strange flecks of gray in this story. The proponents of Prohibition were primarily progressives—and some of the most admirable people in American history, from Susan B. Anthony to Frederick Douglass to Eugene V. Debs.
What? Huh? An amendment designed to engineer a utopian society, to tell an entire nation how to conduct itself, was a progressive amendment? The hell you say!
But Burns’ documentary makes the connection very explicit. It quotes many famous progressives—from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Frederick Douglass—for their support of prohibition. Burns also draws the same point drawn obliquely by Sailer in today’s article: prohibition was the brainchild of small-town northern WASPs (i.e., Yankees) with nothing better to do:
[Mencken] advocated aristocratic disdain of the democratic ethos of the small-town America that had produced William Jennings Bryan, supporter of women’s suffrage and Prohibition . . .
Some people might want to place the eruption of an explicit American progressivism in the 1960s. But Prohibition argues that it should be placed at the turn of the 20th century. Well, yes—that was, after all, the Progressive Era. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there are two types of progressive beliefs in the West: the belief in moral progress, and the belief in technological progress. We should not conflate the two beliefs. Speaking morally, then, the fruit of the American Progressive Era is quite rotten: I give you the 16th Amendment (collection of federal income tax), the 17th Amendment (the final nail in the coffin of state sovereignty), the 18th Amendment (prohibition!), and the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage).
Rotten, yes, but all part of the same progressive cornucopia. If the 18th amendment does not today seem to belong, it is a testament to leftist propaganda that it seems wrongly placed. Prohibition has been completely flushed down the memory hole. Ask any man on the street in 2013 whether the national prohibition of alcohol was a conservative or a progressive goal, he will probably say “conservative.” Burns’ documentary sets the record straight, and Steve’s article reiterates the point.
Like the idea of the ‘Cathedral,’ the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be re-purposed as a piece of neoreactionary agitprop. Wherever possible, we need to use it as the example par excellence of . . . progressivism. No one likes Prohibition. It would thus benefit the right to put it back where it belongs: in the arms of the Left. Maybe the smell from this rotting piece of legislation will start to rub off on everything else in the Progressive fruit basket.
Nick Land’s unfolding series The Shape of Time—well worth the read, like all of Land’s multi-part essays—quotes John Michael Greer at length in an attempt to summarize the various ‘time shapes’ with which the Occident has ordered time and understood its place in the unfolding expanse of it. Land, following Greer, identifies two major shapes: the Augistinian and the Joachim.
The former is the Christian time shape, beginning with Creation and the Fall, ending with The Last Day and Paradise. Everything in between—that is, secular history—is merely the muddled middle through which God and Christ lead the elect.
The Joachim time shape, on the other hand, is equted with the contemporary progressive ordering of time. Greer describes it:
To Joachim, sacred history was not limited to a paradise before time, a paradise after it, and the thread of the righteous remnant and the redeeming doctrine linking the two. He saw sacred history unfolding all around him in the events of his own time. His vision divided all of history into three great ages, governed by the three persons of the Christian trinity: the Age of Law governed by the Father, which ran from the Fall to the crucifixion of Jesus; the Age of Love governed by the Son, which ran from the crucifixion to the year 1260; and the Age of Liberty governed by the Holy Spirit, which would run from 1260 to the end of the world.
What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it — and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages — was that it was a story of progress.
Yes, a story of progress, but almost certainly a story of moral progress.
The progressive time-shape—an ordering of time which denies the existence of feedback loops, regression, cycles, a complexly but systematically enforced sustainability—has today developed conceptually along two disconnected axes: the moral and the technological.
The first is exemplified by radical, millennial Protestantism and its belief in the perfectability of mankind. The ordering of time along an axis of ever-perfecting moral progress was the explicit assumption of John Noyes and other 19th century North American utopian Christians; it is the implicit assumption of the progressive Left in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is given its clearest form in Martin Luther King Jr.’s gnomic apothegm: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The axis of time stretches in one direction; its purpose is predominantly moral; and its terminal point is the moral perfection of human beings. The discourse of the progressive Left constantly reaffirms this sense of universal purpose.
However, the ordering of time along an axis of ever-expanding technological progress has little to do with the time shape of moral progress. Ray Kurzweil is the obvious exemplar in this case. The first chapter of The Singularity is Near explicitly orders the history of time according to Six Epochs, each representing a more advanced stage of knowledge and/or technological progress than the epoch that came before it: Epoch One: Physics and Chemistry. Epoch Two: Biology and DNA. Epoch Three: Brains. Epoch Four: Technology. Epoch Five: The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence. Epoch Six: The Universe Wakes Up.
This time shape is given its clearst form in the idea that “humans are the minds through which the universe comes to know and marvel at itself.” Humans with the highest IQs and most advanced technology are obviously in the best position to further travel along this arc of technological progress toward singularity.
Those who order time according to the shape of Moral Progress rarely have any affinity for those who order time according to the shape of Technological Progress. And vice versa. They see time expanding toward very different (though, I suppose, not mutually exclusive) goals.
My personal preference is obviously for the latter time shape: technological progress. I am only concerned with moral progress insofar as vice leads to social disorder and instability, which are not optimal for the progress of knowledge and technology. I have, for most of my adult life, been a firm believer in technological progress; even in my nominally Leftist days, however, I was skeptical about the existence of moral progress. As a neoreactionary, I outright deny it.
In general, good evidence exists for accepting the one time arc but denying the other. Moral progress is a blatant absurdity. Slavery is as rampant today as it was a thousand years ago; wars and rumors of war never cease. The idea that the species can be improved in some way, as Cormac McCarthy said, is a false idol, and those who worship it make their lives vacuous and corrupt. My rejection of progressivism is ultimately a rejection of the belief in moral progress; it also results from the belief that those who try to push the world along a time arc that doesn’t actually exist are usually the ones pushing it, at various times and places, into the social disorder and instability they seek to obviate.
Conversely, technological progress is a blatant reality. Isn’t it? Science would look like magic to human populations from just a few hundred years ago. Diseases have been eradicated or made easily treateable. A thouand years back, humans hadn’t made it across the Atlantic Ocean; now we fly over it in a few hours; hell, making it to the moon isn’t too much trouble . . .
That is to say, making it to the moon wasn’t too much trouble at one point. Today, NASA can’t even put a person in low-earth orbit.
Technological progress has clearly occurred, but its continuation is not inevitable. In hindsight, this should be an obvious point. The success of 20th century science has led me to be more optimistic than history warrants. And I’m not even talking about the collapse of Rome. That regression was relatively minor compared to regressions on longer time scales in deep history. At some point, a population of archaic hominids found themselves stranded on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Over the course of the next ten thousand years, their brains shrunk. And then shrunk some more. They continued to use basic tools, but they were destined never to advance like their distant cousins who stayed in Africa and Europe. As Razib Khan puts it here: “I can believe that a local adaptation toward small brains, Idiocracy-writ large, occurred. Brains are metabolically expensive, and it isn’t as if the history of life on earth has shown the massive long-term benefits of being highly encephalized.”
Regression. To a Westerner in 2013, the notion of regression is frightening, nearly horrific. In most dystopian visions, things regress, but somewhere someone retains high-tech knowledge and skill. Earth in Elysium may be one giant Mexican city, but the whites, Indians, and Asians on Elysium itself have advanced closer toward Singularity. In Wells’ vision, the Eloi are docile illiterates, but the Morlock still know how to run the machines.
A global regression, on the other hand, means that everyone has forgotten. Lost knowledge of the ancients. My modern bias tells me that the ancients didn’t know anything worth knowing in our age of science, but maybe that’s not true. Regardless, if contemporary knowledge is lost, then our distant idiot ancestors will have lost the knowledge of the ancients.
If we take Greer’s and Land’s thesis seriously—that any time shape positing an Arc of Progress is seriously problematic—then we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that a technolgoical Elysium is as unattainable, or, at least, as unlikely a goal as a moral Utopia. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a futurist. One can only hope that the complex cycles of time always come around to this same place again. If Science, Technology, and Reason are transient, humanity can always look forward to their return.
In my series of posts on Islamic science (the point of which was to begin a discussion about political and intellectual climates that have been, in history, most conducive to scientific and technological progress), I made the following statement about the importance of the printing press to Europe’s scientific and industrial revolutions:
Europe industrialized first because Europeans figured out how to bring theoretical knowledge together and put it to work for material, practical ends . . . The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were made possible by neither applied technology nor pure science but by a generative relationship between both, a relationship enabled in great part by the printing press and an increased circulation of ideas.
. . . Islamic science failed to systematize its knowledge across disciplines and never bridged what today we call the pure/applied science gap. It’s probably fair to suggest that this systematization never occurred because the Muslims lacked an adequate means of circulation. Seen in this light, the printing press was perhaps the most important pre-Enlightenment invention—whichever culture developed that first was bound to systematize its fragmented knowledge first.
It was pointed out to me that the Chinese had invented movable type printing much earlier than Gutenberg. Indeed, Bi Sheng invented the world’s first true printing press in 1040 AD (“true” in the sense that it used movable types instead of wood or ceramic blocks, both of which were fragile and/or re-produced whole pages instead of characters). In the 1200s, a similar press was invented in Korea. So why didn’t East Asia industrialize? Why didn’t the printing press lead to an increased circulation of ideas in the Orient? Surely, by the time Europe began to awaken from its slumber, the Chinese had likewise accumulated enough practical and theoretical knowledge to make modern science and technology possible. They had the knowledge; they had the press. What went wrong?
The printing press was never widely adopted in China or elsewhere in the Orient. One major reason it was never widely adopted is that printing with Chinese characters is exceedingly more difficult, cumbersome, and expensive than printing with the Latin alphabet. The former would have contained around 20,000 characters; the latter contains 26 letters. In other words, alphabetic writing systems lend themselves to movable-type printing; logographic systems do not.
In practice, a single font scheme for early European printing presses required about 100 characters. And according to this fellow from Utrecht University, by the middle of the sixteenth century, highly profitable printers were already ordering font schemes that had 100,000+ types (for various special characters, including a’s and b’s, et cet.). However, huge numbers of types could be produced in Europe because smaller sets (100 or so, as I said) had already been produced and found to be extremely profitable for the printer. Chinese printers never had a chance to experiment and test the market with small type sets; for them, movable type printing was a massive and expensive undertaking from the very beginning. Also, Gutenberg had invented, along with the printing press, a hand mould which made the production of type matrices extremely easy. No such method for creating Chinese types was ever invented, in part, I assume, because Chinese characters are just so much more intricate than Latinate letters.
Another problem for Chinese writing was (is) that their logographic system is open-ended. As Steven Fischer succinctly explains in A History of Writing:
Each new word in the language automatically requires a new grapheme in the system. In contrast, a ‘closed’ alphabetic system, like the one underlying the Latin script, can phonetically reproduce every new word with a very small inventory of letters.
Even if China had experienced something similar to the scientific revolution, it might have been difficult for printers to ‘keep up’ with the constant flow of new symbols coming from the scientists and their new words, each of which would require a new type. And without a method for creating new types quickly and inexpensively, it wasn’t exactly a safe economic bet for any Chinese entrepreneurs to go into printing.
According to the same scholar I linked earlier, printing was never widely adopted in the Islamic world for two very different reasons. First, printing in Arabic script was outright banned in the Ottoman Empire until the mid-1700s (minority groups, such as the Greeks or Armenians, could apparently print in their own scripts, but that practice never became widespread, either). Second, even after the ban, Islamic scholars were purists about their calligraphy. The Arabic writing system, like the Latin one, is an alphabet, containing only 28 letters and thus suited for movable type printing. However, Arabic letters ideally run together, in cursive fashion; for most of Islamic history, not writing the alphabet in cursive is considered a bastardization of the writing system. During the printing press’s first century, there was simply no way for printers to print without separating the letters. Well, fuck that! said the Islamists. We just won’t use printing presses, then.
The invention of the printing press made possible the increased circulation of ideas necessary for the scientific and technological revolution. However, had Europe’s writing systems not been alphabetic—had they been comprised of hundreds or thousands of characters instead of just 26—then printing would have been a much riskier economic undertaking, and we probably wouldn’t have seen an explosion of printing presses opening up all over Europe. Goodbye, circulation of ideas.
It goes without saying that, throughout history, no one in Europe or China met in synod to decide once and for all what their writing systems would be like. No one took votes on whether or not to adopt an alphabet, a syllabary, or a logographic system. From the neoreactionary perspective, however, the story of the European and Chinese writing systems—and their contributions, or lack thereof, to the adoption of print culture—provides an obvious lesson: cultural systems do matter when it comes to cultural advancement and enrichment. Not all cultures are equally equipped to advance. The East Asians had higher average IQs, but they didn’t have an alphabet. The difference between adopting an alphabet and adopting tens of thousands of individual symbols was, in part, the difference between who industrialized first.
Civilization is difficult, fragile. A million things have to go right for it to emerge and a million more have to go right for it to advance. It’s never just the one thing. Even writing systems matter.