Volver, or Christianity and the Degenerative Ratchet
“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.
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.
The Motives of Social Policy
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.
Moral and Technological Progress 2
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.
Two Shapes of Time: Moral vs. Technological Progress
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.
Chinese Logographs vs. the Latin Alphabet
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.
Left Utopia envisions a world without economic winners and losers, which is to say, a world without competition. This world without competition is sometimes figured as “post-capitalism,” but as Nick Land has said, “post-capitalism has no real meaning except an end to the engine of change.” I’d go further, arguing that non-competitive post-capitalism has no real meaning except as slow destruction of technological society and reversion to pre-industrial lifestyles. Put the other way around, the engine of technological change and growth is competition—creative destruction, capitalism. The inevitable social by-product of growth is economic winners and losers. A healthy society will put a basic welfare system in place to help the losers temporarily, and to channel them back into the growth economy with new skills. A sick society will incentivize the losers’ staying losers, creating a permanent underclass of professional parasites. A terminally ill society will make this permanent underclass the focus of its moral and economic energy.
According to Joel Mokyr (whose work is highly recommended), the old guild system of Europe offers a clear case of a force impeding growth by minimizing competition to keep guild members from economic loss. Mokyr calls the guilds a “conservative” force, but he goes on to compare them implicitly to modern labor unions; clearly, then, the guilds, as proto-unions, were proto-Leftists. (However, one might also frame the guilds—just as one might frame pre-Civil Rights era labor unions—as populists whose concern was the welfare of the artisan and working classes, a Leftism of sorts but one not necessarily and often not associated with Leftward movement more generally. I’ll return to this alternate framing at the other end of the long quote.)
As with the rise and fall of Islamic science, the European guilds offer an historical example that informs us about what does or does not facilitate the growth of science and technology. One of the points made in Mokyr’s excellent essay—“Innovation and its Enemies”—is that if a population is dedicated to the maintenance of a safe, non-competitive equilibrium for itself, then science and technology will likewise remain in atrophic stasis. Mokyr writes:
The protection of skills and specific human capital is often combined with other forms of rent-seeking through the creation of barriers to entry and the control of output. This is clearly a widespread interpretation of the European craft-guild system which ruled urban artisans in many areas for many centuries. In pre-modern urban Europe these guilds enforced and eventually froze the technological status quo. Similar phenomena, mutatis mutandis, occurred in China.
. . . Kellenbenz, for example, states that “guilds defended the interests of their members against outsiders, and these included the inventors who, with their new equipment and techniques, threatened to disturb their members’ economic status. They were just against progress.” Much earlier Pirenne pointed out that “the essential aim [of the craft guild] was to protect the artisan, not only from external competition, but also from the competition of his fellow-members.” The consequence was “the destruction of all initiative. No one was permitted to harm others by methods which enabled him to produce more quickly and more cheaply than they. Technical progress took on the appearance of disloyalty.”
In most of Europe, then, craft guilds eventually became responsible for a level of regulation that stifled competition and innovation. They did this by laying down meticulous rules about three elements of production that we might term “the three p’s”: prices, procedures, and participation. As guilds gained in political power, they tried as much as they could to weaken market forces as aggregators and tended increasingly to freeze technology in its tracks. The regulation of prices was inimical to technological progress because process innovation by definition reduces costs, and the way through which the inventor makes his profits is by underselling his competitors. Regulating prices may still have allowed some technological progress because innovators could have realized increased profits through lowering costs even if they could not undersell their competitors. To prevent this, procedures stipulated precisely how a product was supposed to be made and such technical codes, while originally designed to deal with legitimate concerns such as reputation for quality, eventually caused production methods to ossify altogether. Enforcing these procedures, however, was far more difficult than enforcing pre-set prices. Finally, and in the long run perhaps the most effective brake on innovation, was participation: by limiting and controlling the number of entrants into crafts, and by forcing them to spend many years in apprenticeship and journeymanship, guild members infused them with the conventions of the technological status quo and essentially cut off the flow of fresh ideas and the cross-fertilization between branches of knowledge that so often is the taproot of technological change. Exclusion of innovators by guilds did not end with the Middle Ages or even the Industrial Revolution. In 1855, the Viennese guild of cabinetmakers filed a suit against Michael Thonet, who had invented a revolutionary process for making bentwood furniture . . .
In the past century resistance to new production technology has come in part from labor unions. There is no compelling reason why labor unions must always resist technological change: after all, as “encompassing organizations” they ought also to be aware of the undeniable benefits that new technology brings to their members qua consumers. The growth of the labor movement’s power in Britain is often held responsible for the declining technological dynamism of post-Victorian Britain. Resistance of organized labor slowed down technological progress in mining, shipbuilding and cotton weaving. Such resistance was not a hundred percent effective, but Coleman and MacLeod may well be right when they judge that labor’s resistance “reinforced the increasingly apathetic attitude of employers toward technological change.”
As anti-competition, the guilds were essentially anti-capitalist; their story is evidence that any Left Utopian attempts to initiate a non-competitive “post-capitalist” state will likely retard the progress of technology and science.
However, if you read Steve Sailer, you’ve probably drawn some parallels between the guilds’ attempt to keep outsiders from treading on their territory and possibly ‘takin their jobs!’ and the arguments for immigration restriction. After all, can’t Sailer’s entire argument be construed as wanting to limit who can enter the market, thus limiting competition? (Paging Bryan Caplan . . .)
No. You can’t construe it that way. First of all, neither Sailer nor any ethno-nationalists I know advocate for keeping out any and all possible entrants into the various American labor markets, so long as the new (foreign) entrants aren’t legion and so long as they truly bring a competitive edge with them (a degree, a high-IQ, a middle-class skill set, etc.). But Steve’s entire point (Caesar Chavez’s, as well) is that many new entrants into the American market a) are WAY TOO MANY and/or b) do not bring a competitive edge with them; they simply bring a willingness to work for cheap, cheap, cheap and without benefits.
To understand the difference between the anti-competition guild mindset and the anti-immigration stance, we can return to the last paragraph of Mokyr’s essay quoted above:
Finally, and in the long run perhaps the most effective brake on innovation, was participation: by limiting and controlling the number of entrants into crafts, and by forcing them to spend many years in apprenticeship and journeymanship, guild members infused them with the conventions of the technological status quo and essentially cut off the flow of fresh ideas and the cross-fertilization between branches of knowledge that so often is the taproot of technological change.
Restricting low-skilled immigration and reasonably regulating higher-skilled immigration will most certainly not “cut off the flow of fresh ideas” that are the “taproot of technological change.” Isolationist policies very well might, but not immigration restriction. Even Caplan and his ilk at their most delusional cannot argue, with a straight face, that curtailing Mexican immigration, not accepting third world refugees, and being stricter about H1B and H1B1 visas will have any measurable impact on scientific and technological progress, its speed or its quality. In fact, it’s arguable that inviting waves of labor who are valued first and foremost for their cheapness is, in fact, as anti-competitive as the European guild mindset.
In the comments about my post on Islamic science, Jim sketches an interesting genealogy of mathematical knowledge. While I find the history and transmission of ideas fascinating, however, I think the more important question is not who came up with something first? or who stole from whom? but rather who put scientific knowledge to the best use?
One of the conclusions drawn in my post is that Europe industrialized first because Europeans figured out how to bring theoretical knowledge together and put it to work for material, practical ends. However, I came across an interesting essay by Joel Mokyr—an historian of economics at Northwestern—in which Mokyr argues that 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.
In other cultures and historical periods, people had figured out how certain things work on the ground and other people were figuring out how the world’s mechanisms and systems operated at a more general or theoretical level. But no one brought the two methods together. It’s well known, for example, that the Romans possessed all the knowledge they needed to build a steam engine: they had cylinders, pistons, and valves scattered across various inventions, and Hero of Alexandria even drew up diagrams for one. (Here’s an interesting post by a high-IQ undergraduate who argues that the Romans also had what they needed to build a simple computing device.) What the Romans—or the Greeks or the Caliphate or the Chinese—didn’t have were a way to circulate ideas and an epistemic base that encouraged practical inventors and theoretical philosophers to bring their knowledge together. Both are clearly related. Mokyr writes:
. . . before the Industrial Revolution all techniques in use were supported by very narrow epistemic bases. That is to say, the people who invented them did not have much of a clue as to why and how they worked. The pre-1750 world produced, and produced well. It made many path-breaking inventions. But it was a world of engineering without mechanics, iron-making without metallurgy, farming without soil science, mining without geology, water-power without hydraulics, dye-making without organic chemistry, and medical practice without microbiology and immunology. The main point to keep in mind here is that such a lack of an epistemic base does not necessarily preclude the development of new techniques through trial and error and simple serendipity. But it makes the subsequent wave of micro-inventions that adapt and improve the technique and create the sustained productivity growth much slower and more costly. If one knows why some device works, it becomes easier to manipulate and debug it, to adapt to new uses and changing circumstances. Above all, one knows what will not work and thus reduce the costs of research and experimentation.
Bringing knowledge together—systematizing fragmented treatises and ideas—was a defining feature of the Enlightenment project: this “combination of different kinds of knowledge supporting one another” laid the groundwork for real technological progress and economic growth. Systematization also means experiments can be more focused and grounded and thus less costly in the long run; and as I mentioned in the last post, one thing Europe did that the Muslim world ceased doing was to fund scientific experimentation. So, with Mokyr’s essay in mind, we can say that a society must not only be willing to fund science (through government or private investment) but it also must know where to channel that funding for the best results.
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. Instead, the Muslim world developed an increasingly fundamentalist and homogenous religion, lost its centrality in the network of global trade, and thus stopped funneling excess capital into scientific and technological development.
In one of my first posts, I mentioned that studying the rise and fall of medieval Islamic science might provide interesting neoreactionary insights into the way societies optimize or fail to optimize for intelligence and culture. What did the Caliphate do correctly, where did the Islamic world go wrong, and why did it never return to a Golden Age while its neighbors to the West awoke to new heights of enlightenment? Before Christian Europe took up the mantle, the light of rational inquiry sparked by the Greeks and Romans enlightened the Islamic world. Why was it snuffed out and can we learn any relevant lessons for the contemporary West?
Rather than provide a concrete answer just yet, I’ll post some of the best resources and discussions I’ve discovered so far:
1. “The Religious State of Islamic Science.” An interesting interview with Turkish-American physicist, Taner Edis. He cautions against placing medieval Islamic science on a pedestal, reminding us that it was still thoroughly medieval, closer to classical Greek philosophy than to the empirical science developed in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. (However, he does recognize that Islamic scientists made prominent discoveries in medicine and astronomy and optics.) Edis’s general sense is that while Church power in Europe weakened or, at least, while the Church granted a measure of legal autonomy to systems outside the Church, the Islamic world never experienced a “reformation” or formulated a “separation of church and state.” The co-mingling of religious and legal power in the Islamic world was a fertile ground for science so long as the religious leaders were secular; once they became fundamentalist, however, the fertile ground dried up. Edis also talks here about the fundamentalist blinders that keep Islamic science from developing today. (Also enjoy the section in which the interviewer tries to get him to blame Western imperialism for the state of scientific research in Muslim countries; Edis refuses to play that game.)
2. “Tolerance, Religious Competition and the Rise and Fall of Muslim Science.” Written by Harvard economist Eric Chaney, this article argues that Muslim science flourished when theological competition made the study of Aristotelian logic a valuable enterprise, but that logic and rational inquiry became less important as Islam became more fundamentalist and homogenous. (At the same time, European Christianity was becoming more fractured, and theological debate was running rampant.) Islamic fundamentalist rulers, of course, had an interest in keeping their societies fundamentalist and theologically homogenous. Goodbye, rational inquiry. The results of Chaney’s study “highlight how religious groups, like their secular counterparts, can block innovation when they regard it as a threat to their interests.” Look past the eager uses of “diversity” and “tolerance” in this essay; it’s more interesting than its buzz words indicate. It also demonstrates that religion per se is not a detriment to an advanced, intelligent culture; indeed, Chaney argues that competition of religions (or, more accurately, sects within religions) encourages people to hone their logic skills, which lays the groundwork for rational inquiry outside of the theological arena. Perhaps its no mere correlation that the Enlightenment and the Reformation occurred more or less in tandem; it seems there is an optimal temperature for religious schism that is generative rather than destructive.
3. Here’s a video of George Saliba, a Professor of Arabic Studies at Columbia. According to Saliba, most historians, as well as Neil Degrasse Tyson, assume that the influence of anti-rational mystic Al-Ghazali (who refused to believe in cause-effect reasoning) in the 12th century and the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century were the primary causes behind the quick decline of medieval Islamic science. Saliba argues, however, that extant treatises prove the continuation of some level of Islamic scientific development until the 15th and 16th centuries (apparently, an observatory was even built just after the Mongol invasion). So, he posits that the best question to ask is not “what went wrong in Islam?” but “what went right in Europe?” Now, Saliba is clearly a Leftist, but I think he makes an interesting point nonetheless: he argues that the discovery of the New World in 1492 completely re-aligned the trade routes of the Old World. Prior to the Age of Discovery, trade routes went from West to East through the Islamic world, meaning that a lot of human and monetary capital flowed into the Middle East—and excess capital is vital for scientific development. Once the New World was discovered, trade routes shifted into Europe and out into the Atlantic, and capital began to flow through Europe precisely at the same time that religious control was becoming more fundamentalist in the Muslim world and more de-centralized in Europe. Saliba also discusses how Europeans were intelligent enough (my words, not his) to re-invest their new capital into scientific development, both in the New World and in the Old. Saliba, with his Leftist spin, implies that Europeans just stole discoveries made elsewhere, but even his spin can’t hide the fact that what Europe did right was to systematically fund science in order to aggregate, use, and develop the basic discoveries of Islamic science, which never had a practical, experimental edge. (What Saliba tries to do is similar to scholars who say that natives ‘discovered’ penicillin just because they knew fungus could heal wounds. In reality, it takes the funding, empiricism, and high-IQ culture of Western science to isolate and package penicillin.) Also, Saliba overstates the extent to which trade routes ceased running through the Middle East. The trans-Atlantic slave trade into Arab lands was as extensive as it was through Europe and the New World. Rather, Saliba’s contribution is to demonstrate that it’s not enough for a culture to make theoretical discoveries; they also need to have the incentives, the funding, and (as neoreactionaries know) the IQ to figure out how to put those discoveries to work toward practical, material ends.
4. A short but interesting section about the Golden Age under the Abassid Caliphate from a book by John Esposito, a Cornell professor whose life seems to have been dedicated to Muslim-Christian relations. The most interesting tidbit from this chapter, from a neoreactionary perspective, is that Persians (i.e., white Muslims) played a major role in the bureaucracy of this period. (Persians also constitute a majority of the period’s prominent Muslim scientists.) Esposito also points out that the Golden Age was made possible, in part, by generous funding of culture, art, and science.
So what’s the take-away at this point? First, the consolidation of religious and state power is detrimental to scientific development because any knowledge that challenges the religion will itself be challenged—e.g., not funded or completely eradicated—by the state. Paging Dr. Jason Richwine. (Religion itself is not the problem; indeed, in both Europe and the Middle East, science flourished amidst vigorous religious debate; it’s no accident that most early scientists in both places were religious.) Second, science needs to be funded so that it can be perfected and put to use. As I’ve mentioned before in comments threads, I honestly have no problem with government expenditures so long as the money is spent on the advancement of science and technology—which will have material and fiscal returns—and not on programs that incentivize social pathology and failure. And finally, and most offensively, it appears as though the Golden Age of Islamic science was actually the Golden Age of Persian science . . . So, one way we can optimize for intelligence is to give more power to high-IQ populations and less power to low-IQ populations. That’s the current trend in America, right?
[Update: Per the comment thread, Islam’s contribution to science in the 21st century will be its continued jihad against the West, which will push the West to develop more and more sophisticated weapons technology for killing all the jihadis.)
Violence and History
The more I discourse with Cathedral clerics and catachumens, the more I realize that the moral weight of the Left Narrative rests upon a single historical assumption: In 1492, the white peoples of Europe began to unleash all matter of human horrors into the rest of the world. Genocide, slavery, subjugation, destruction of traditions, imperialism, warfare over resources, so on and so forth. The descendants of those white Europeans are today living a privileged life made possible entirely by the brutality and racism of their ancestors. So, in the name of social justice, a weighing of the scales must take place. The white peoples of the world need to seek forgiveness from those who have been subjugated; whites need to live with constant guilt for the world-altering sins of their fathers; most importantly, whites need to pay damages or, at least, invite all the subjugated peoples into their cities and towns with open arms and laws designed to benefit the people they have oppressed for centuries.
To witness this assumption in full force, we can look at the discourse of academic post-colonial theory. I quote liberally from the Wikipedia entry on post-colonialism:
In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon analysed and medically described the nature of colonialism as essentially destructive; that its societal effects — the imposition of a subjugating colonial identity — are harmful to the mental health of the coloured peoples who were subjugated into colonies. That the ideologic essence of colonialism is the systematic denial of “all attributes of humanity” of the colonised people; that such dehumanization is achieved with physical and mental violence, by which the colonist means to inculcate a servile mentality upon the native men and women, and that the native peoples must violently resist colonial subjugation.
Hence, violent resistance to colonialism is a mentally cathartic practice, which purges colonial servility from the native psyche, and restores self-respect to the men and women whom the colonialist subjugated with the epistemic violence that is inherent to the colonial institutions of the Mother Country . . .
. . . Notably, “The West” created the cultural concept of “The East”, which allowed the European suppression of the ability of the peoples of the Middle East, of the Indian Subcontinent, and of Asia, to express and represent themselves as discrete peoples and cultures. Orientalism thus conflated and reduced the non–Western world into the homogeneous cultural entity known as “The East”. Therefore, in service to the colonial type of imperialism, the Us-and-Them Orientalist paradigm allowed Europeans scholars to misrepresent the Oriental World as inferior and backward, irrational and wild, whilst misrepresenting Western Europe as superior and progressive, as rational and civil, as the opposite of the Oriental Other.
The Left Narrative of social justice assumes this one-eye-blind historical vision. It casts history in terms of good “natives” and bad white colonizers, and the Narrative carries its moral weight on this binary frame. However, it retains its moral weight only on the following related conditions:
1. The historical vision is, in fact, completely true.
2. The “natives” weren’t unleashing similar evils on one another before the Europeans arrived; oppression was invented in 1492.
To cause the masses to question the Narrative, we simply need to challenge either 1 or 2. Luckily, both are easily challenged. The history of the world did not begin in 1492, and history itself does not come equipped with good guys and bad guys. History is complex. Any Narrative imposed upon it will necessarily select certain elements and deflect dozens of others. So, to reclaim history from the Left Narrative, particularly postcolonialism, we should not try to resurrect any Victorian Narratives about the white man’s burden or anything like that. Rather, we simply need to show that the assumptions of the Left Narrative of History are factually wrong, wrong wrong. We show it with a simple recourse to confirmed historical facts.
A certain body of work—epitomized by Niall Fergusson—attempts to challenge the first condition above, documenting the many positive things accomplished by colonizers, such as curtailing the practice of sati in India, providing writing systems for many indigenous languages, increasing age-expectancies with Western medicine, and the like.
This work is effective for challenging the Narrative, but when all is said and done, it doesn’t necessarily change the effects of the Narrative.
“Well, sure,” the Leftist will reply, “colonialism may have left behind a few good things, typically because the oppressed natives were brilliant enough to use their masters’ tools for their own benefit. But this silver lining doesn’t excuse the overwhelming violence that the cancer of white Europe has inflicted upon the world.”
Given the inevitability of this response, I’ve realized that the second condition buttressing the moral weight of the Left Narrative—that the natives were not unleashing evils upon one another, that oppression began in 1492—is a much more central assumption of the Narrative. If this assumption is challenged, what can the progs say in return? “Well, sure, the Indians, Africans, and Mayans were all killing and conquering one another, and fighting over resources before the Europeans arrived, but that doesn’t excuse the Europeans for doing the same thing.”
Mm. Not quite as effective as the first rebuttal. Even if we admit that, no, pre-1492 violence doesn’t excuse the Europeans, it does excuse us from collective guilt and social re-engineering for the sake of the supposed “wretched of the earth.” If two children are fighting over a toy in a sandbox, grabbing the toy back and forth, throwing sand in each others’ faces, and a third child comes along, grabs the toy and throws sand in the other children’s faces . . . why should only the third child be punished or made guilty?
Discussing the creative destruction of techno-commercialism in the comments here, Spandrell writes the following:
Conquistadors won because they had higher IQs. End of story. Ceteris paribus the nastiest and better organized wins.
That usually involves violence and coercion. How many local traditions were destroyed by Rome? By Chingis Khan? How many by European imperialism?
I think this is precisely the tone we need to take. The Ferguson case for imperialism can be made, of course, but it’s much more powerful to admit, for argument’s sake, that, yes, colonial expansion was violent, destructive, fueled by a desire for resources, so on and so forth, before adding, “Just like it has been since homo-sapiens began killing other hominids as they expanded out of Africa. Do you think our species succeeded by always being nice?”
The Cathedral knows that this line of reasoning has serious implications for the moral weight of its Historical Narrative and, by extension, the moral weight of many of its white-guilt policies. This is why anthropology has abandoned its descriptive roots, and why Napoleon Chagnon was attacked so viciously for merely suggesting that the Yanamamo are no angels. His naieve defenders respond by pointing out the huge difference between describing the less savory elements of native culture and calling for their genocide or subjugation. However, this naieve defense ignores the fact that describing tribal life as anything less than Pure and Noble strikes a blow to the moral center of Leftism. If what happened during the colonial project was not the obliteration of peace-loving, Enya-listening Disney Indians, but more of the same old same that had gone on for millennia—just on a larger stage—then the Cathedral’s ability to use white guilt as a blunt object for getting things done is no longer guaranteed.
If you take a peak at the Library of the Dark Enlightenment at the top-right of this blog page, you’ll discover an in-progress list of legitimate scholarly work “On Violence.” Again, we needn’t revert to the old Victorian Narrative in order to refute the current Narrative (which has essentially been a recasting of the Backward Savages as the Noble Savages). We merely need to demonstrate the historical fact of violence, warfare, slavery, and conquest, because these facts, in and of themselves, do damage to the moral weight of the Left Narrative.
For example, we Americans are taught to believe that we completely destroyed and conquered peaceful native civilization. Instead of trying to complicate that fact, we should (also) point out that many native tribes were, in their day, just as conquering: the Iroquois pushed out the Osage, who then migrated west and pushed out some of the prairie tribes. During the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois attacked French-allied tribes and expanded their territory well beyond their original bounds. Aztec imperialism was so complete, it left genetic changes that can be detected today in the genes of their conquered descendants.
Again, we should not take these facts as evidence that they were all “backward, raging savages” or anything like that. The Victorians were just as wrong as the contemporary Neo-purtains of the Cathedral. Nor should we deny that European expansionism was at times violent and destructive to local traditions. Instead, we should remind the Cathedral, wherever we can, that the facts of indigenous violence and conquest seriously mitigate the guilt any of us—European or Mayan—should feel about blood shed and peoples conquered throughout the many ages since humans walked out of Africa.