The conclusions drawn in Marc Dyal’s essay on Deleuze, Guattari, and the New Right settle nicely into the neural crevices of any man who rejects the totalitarianism inherent in the ideology of imagined global collectives and who instead believes in the primacy of the individual, the family, and the organic community. The rejection of the former and the elevation of the latter, according to Dyal, depends on a reversal of the notion of difference—difference becomes not a chasm to be negotiated or tactically bridged but rather the very (non)ground from which the individual, the family, or the organic community fights against forced collectivization:
Far from vulgar liberal politics of difference, which defends the right of the minority to be included in the majority by continually reconfiguring the standards of majority inclusion, Deleuze and Guattari propose the process of becoming-minor, wherein individuals and groups actively diverge from the majority. In other words, becoming-minor involves the same active transvaluation of the bourgeois form of life that has prompted the creation of the revolutionary Right.
I can see how this move would appeal to identities as diverse as European ethno-nationalists and Black Panthers. It is a similar philosophy to the one held by men such as Booker T. Washington, who, contra DuBois, thought it unwise to vivisect blacks onto white society through legal coercion and pressure politics. The better policy, Washington thought, was to keep the black community separate, so as to build a stronger black community on its own terms, on the fringes of white society, through industrial education and wealth accumulation. This strategy would create an educated, financially empowered black minority whose integration with the majority would not be coerced but would occur organically, slowly, as blacks demonstrated within their own communities that they were as responsible and reliable as whites. In short, the difference between black and white should be maintained, Washington contended, so as to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that black success could be achieved without white blessing and white charity. Then, and only then, might black and white meet on equal terms.
Similarly, though in a very different context, all Mencian forms of political philosophy operate upon the assumption that stark lines of difference are necessary between one social order and the next so that humanity can learn which ones fail and why, and which ones succeed and why. Social order as experimentation and refinement—but no experiment works without carefully differentiated groups. Coerced homogeneity is anathema to diversity of social orders and therefore to social experimentation and refinement.
Difference, then, is important . . . . but it becomes a problematic concept if we follow it to its philosophical core. Here is Dyal’s definition:
Difference is the ontological reality of the world – a great mass of individual specimens that resist all forms of representation and universalization – as it is sensually experienced. Deleuze insists that there is no ground, subject, or being that experiences; there is only experience that flows and becomes in each passing instant. There is no actual world that is then represented in virtual images by the privileged mind of man.
This is debatable, to put it mildly. Difference may be the ontological reality of the world . . . but it does not follow that the world cannot be adequately modeled and represented in human terms. Regardless of what Dyal says, the world does not resist representation. The images, the models that we build are of course always tentative, open to modification, but they nevertheless can model correctly (even if we are only partially aware of why they seem to be correct). For example, Lagrangian points were “represented” two centuries before man took to the skies, much less the heavens, and yet Lagrange was obviously “representing the world” in the right direction because today his model has been successfully used to plan spaceflights.
It takes a hardcore science-skeptic (on the level of Flat Earthers) to claim that mankind can never model the universe with an acceptable degree of precision. Mankind has done so, and continues to do so. The point is proven every time an airplane lifts off from a runway.
I am well aware, however, that philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari typically have in mind social desiderata when claiming that no ground exists upon which an objective model of the world might be constructed. But even here, in the context of the social, it can be claimed that the world is not such a “mass of individual specimens” that it “resists all forms of representation and universalization.”
If we first agree—as I think we must—that acceptably accurate representations of the material world are possible, and second, if we agree that the social realm—mankind itself—is to some extent influenced by or comprised of material, then surely we must agree that the ontology of the social realm can be accurately modeled, represented, concatenated through images constructed in human terms. Isn’t this idea central to reactionary thought? Humans may be a great mass of individual specimens, but certain things about it can be represented, even universalized, through the sciences of genetics, evolutionary biology, medicine, even linguistics. Humans may be a great mass of individual specimens, but the mass as a whole is always under material pressures that are, to some extent, knowable.
In short, Dyal’s rejecting the idea that humanity can be represented or universalized entails the rejection of any science of humanity. It puts him in the same camp as the leftist creationists . . . which shouldn’t be surprising, since Deleuze and Guattari are leftists.
Rejecting any and all attempts to model humanity frees oneself from the implications of those models and leaves one free to define (and re-define) humanity according to non-rational impulses: “there is only experience that flows and becomes in each passing instant.” If that is the case, then we are free from the influence of ancestry and evolution. As Dyal puts it:
Looking ahead, it is important to know that in this conception of experience, individual humans cannot be made knowable genealogically as general or common manifestations of an Idea, but instead by understanding the processes of individuation determined by actual and specific differences, multitudinous influences, and chance interactions.
Ironically, the elevation of difference makes any science of human difference all but impossible, as Dyal himself notes.
So, the question is, can one claim the philosophical notion of difference without accepting its core rejection of human representation? Or must neoreactionaries deny difference a foundational role in why we think social difference is important to maintain? Should our recognition of difference flow from empirical “models” of ontological reality, trusting these models despite their incomplete, tentative nature?
“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.
The tribal urban protests happening in American cities bring most forcefully to mind this simple question:
Who, if anyone, is to have a monopoly on violence?
The Western provides the archetype:
A small town on the prairie, full of good, hardworking folk, is being terrorized by a roving band of horse and cattle thieves, or perhaps by a land baron forcing the community under threats of violence into selling their farms for well-below-market value. What are the good townspeople to do? They are not violent by nature, and even if one can find a few strong men to fight the good fight, everyone knows the dark truth: a defensive blow from their side would simply result in an even stronger blow from the cattle thieves or the land baron. Thus would be initiated an ever-escalating battle, with uncertain ends. Too much to lose.
In rides the Man With No Name. On horseback, six shooters at his side. He hails from nowhere and nothing. He takes up the cause of the townspeople. He rides out to confront the roving band of thieves or the land baron. Not only does he fight the enemy, he kills the enemy. He wins not only the one fight but all future fights, so that the town might live in peace even once he has gone.
And he must go. The Man With No Name must ride into the sunset. He cannot become part of the community he has saved; there is too much blood on his hands. He has saved the town through viciousness. He has saved it with bullets and with mortal wounds, the only way to save it, but luckily, The Man With No Name has saved the town not only from its physical threat but also from the moral threat of guilt. Thanks to the Man With No Name, the town did not have to summon its own monstrous viciousness to confront and defeat the monster.
The Man With No Name is a sin-eater. He has a monopoly on the violence which is necessary to save the town, so that the town needn’t deal with the truth, that moral terror is necessary to combat moral terror.
One of the central questions confronting any society is how to deal with the threat of violent individuals or groups that exist within it. The answer has generally been to give the state or some other centralized power a complete monopoly on the violence necessary to ensure protection against internal threats to harmony. Generally speaking, this monopoly is to be Nameless, hailing from nowhere and nothing, which is why the horseman in the Western has No Name and why the executioner wears a mask when he beheads the criminal. The executioner, like the horseman, is a sin-eater. He combats terror with terror so that the community or the individuals victimized do not have to, that they might remain innocent.
The alternatives to monpolized violence slide quickly toward vigilantism or mob rule, scenarios in which any community or individual may be called upon to resort to violence in order to combat violence.
Neoreactionary law would be minimal, protecting negative rights. The only acts punishable in a neoreactionary society would be acts that materially harm or that intend to materially harm body or property.
What, then, does the neoreactionary society do with a Michael Brown, or even a Tamir Rice? (A neoreactionary society would not have bothered Eric Garner, because a neoreactionary society would not decree laws against the free trade of cigarettes.)
What does the neoreactionary society do with internal threats? It is not enough to answer “Exit” for every internal threat, for there is no escaping the problems of internal criminality and violence. We must address those internal threats. How do we address them?
Do we give some central power a monopoly on the violence necessary to combat internal violence?
Do we outsource the violence?
Do we distribute it?
After the Tech Crunch article was published, I had a very long Twitter conversation with a self-styled “anarchist.” I’ve transcribed it here (with minor modifications). It demonstrates plainly that even in radical anarchists we find the Puritan’s universalist impulse to re-make the world in its own eyes, with its own moral compass as a guide, consequences be damned.
The conversation begins with my trying to explain that the coupling of “monarchy” and “neoreaction” is overly simplistic:
Scharlach: The core of neoreaction is not monarchy. The monarchy angle is oversold in the Tech Crunch piece. There are a few earnest monarchists in the neoreactionary ranks, but most of us simply believe that monarchy would in some ways (certainly not in all ways) be better than universal democracy. Defending monarchy is an intellectual point we like to make, not a solid policy proposal.
Anarchist: Fine. So what is the core of neoreaction, if not an apologia for monarchy?
Scharlach: In a few words? Neoreaction is a critique of democracy and demotic excess.
Anarchist: That’s just as absurd as the monarchy business. Everything we enjoy in the West today is thanks to democracy. Democracy is the most positive force in the history of the world.
Scharlach: Quite the opposite. I’d argue that everything we enjoy in the West today has occurred in spite of democracy.
Anarchist: That makes no sense. You must be a racist.
Schlarlach: Can I at least give you some examples of what I mean before you write me off as racist?
Anarchist: Alright. Go ahead, racist.
Scharlach: As one example, I know that every department at my university is very un-democratic when it comes to accepting students. We require both undergraduates and graduates to score well on the SAT and GRE, respectively. There is no voting, no policies to accept all students equally (like at a community college). Once in, students have no say whatsoever in their graduation requirements. And yet my university is ranked in the top 50 nationally and in the top 10 in at least a dozen specialties. As another brief example, how about every successful tech company in existence? Do the janitors at Google get a say in how the company is run?
Anarchist: Okay . . . so you have examples of un-democratic systems that aren’t absolutely shit in every situation. So what?
Scharlach: Oh, but I have lots of examples! I can list them for you if you want.
Anarchist: Spare me.
Scharlach: So why is it then “racist” to suggest that non-democratic social orders might be worth trying?
Anarchist: But non-democratic social orders have been tried. In fact, I’m tempted to argue that the obverse is true. We’ve seen a lot of examples of tyrannical systems trotted out with “democracy” written all over them.
Scharlach: And you don’t find it a bit . . . interesting . . . that so many tyrannical systems seem to find “democracy” a useful cover?
Anarchist: What? Huh? I don’t get what you’re saying? Huh?
Scharlach: Nevermind. I agree that we don’t have anything like true democracy in America or anywhere else on earth. But I would argue that wherever you find things working—in government or in the private sector—you’ll find very little that resembles a democracy in any sense of the word.
Anarchist: Then how about we try democracy? It seems like trying more non-democratic models would be trying the very same things that aren’t working.
Scharlach: Wait. Didn’t we start this conversation based on the assumption that a lot of things are working?
Anarchist: Huh? What? I don’t get what you’re saying? Huh?
Scharlach: Nevermind. How do you define democracy? What is this system that you claim to venerate even though it has never really been tried?
Anarchist: Democracy, as I define it, is a system of governance by which individuals group together to decide on those things that impact the whole.
Scharlach: So everyone should have a say in everything. Sounds very unstable.
Anarchist: No, let me clarify: individuals group together to decide on things that impact them.
Scharlach: Sounds like a tricky distinction to make. In such a system of governance, it’s only a matter of time before political leaders convince people that everything impacts them.
Anarchist: That’s not true. It seems like there will always be a clear distinction that can be made in any given context whether something directly impacts you or not.
Scharlach: Alright. So why do people in Vermont get to vote on Mexican immigration, when said immigration only impacts people along the border states? Or why do I get to vote on same-sex marriage laws when such marriages have no impact on me whatsoever?
Anarchist: That’s not democracy in my anarchistic sense of the word. Under the current authoritarian government model, people get to vote on these issues. But I don’t like how you’re putting immigration and same-sex marriage together here.
Scharlach: Why not? In both cases, we’re talking about people voting on things that don’t directly impact them.
Anarchist: What? Huh? I don’t get it? Huh?
Anarchist: No, wait, I have an answer: if there is true democracy, “immigration” and “Vermont” become meaningless concepts. Sexuality, in contrast, is a universal human constant.
Scharlach: How would democracy override geographically bound populations and population movement? Those seem like universal human constants, as well.
Anarchist: Uh, uh, uh . . . not every decision is geographical. Consider internet protocols and transnational standards.
Scharlach: That’s a complete non-sequitur, but I’ll bite: lots of people are affected by tech standards who have no idea about technology. Should they get to vote on tech standards?
Anarchist: Actually, if you look at how internet standards are decided, the answers is, Yes: rough consensus among people who are actually coding. With the internet, the rules are a) anybody can participate, b) anybody can make a standard, and c) anybody can choose to use or not use it. And in practice, there is no voting. There is deliberation until rough consensus is reached among those who show interest and actually get involved.
Scharlach: “Deliberation among those involved until rough consensus . . .” That’s actually a mildly neoreactionary way of looking at things. Left-anarchy and neoreaction overlap here. But I’d also point out that we can define “those involved” in this context as individuals who have come together through a decidedly un-democratic process. In theory, “anyone” can participate in computing, but in practice, very few people have both the intelligence and the access to technology needed to code. So, “deliberation among those involved until rough consensus” works in the tech world because the people involved have been culled from the populous and are homogenous in many ways. So, in the end, I agree with you that what you’re defining as democracy can work—but only in small, homogenous groups. But the larger and more racially mixed the group, the more difficult it is to reach consensus about anything. Too many competing factions.
Anarchist: What does race have to do with anything?
Scharlach: Replace “race” with “culture” if that makes you feel more comfortable. Most of us neoreactionaries believe that some cultures are simply incommensurable with others. Impossible to reach consensus about things affecting the group when incommensurable cultures are forced to inhabit the same space.
Anarchist: Sorry, but how much have you traveled?
Scharlach: I’ve grown up in and around Los Angeles. Half my family is Mexican. I know plenty about cultural diversity, if that’s where you’re going.
Anarchist: So what’s wrong with cultural diversity?
Scharlach: It’s fine when there’s consensus about it, I suppose. It’s bad when enforced from the top down.
Anarchist: Cultural groups are not as different as you’re implying here. I’ve traversed enough of this planet to know that human cultures are very similar . . . the differences are relatively small.
Scharlach: The differences are small? That’s interesting. I heard just the other day that Afghanistan might go back to stoning adulterers.
Anarchist: What? Huh? I don’t get it? Huh?
Scharlach: Nevermind. I’d just say that your globe-trotting has most likely been from cosmopolitan city to cosmopolitan city. Everyone looks the same in those cities because they’ve all just adopted your Western norms and ways of living. These people are a minority.
Anarchist: Well, then, the key for democracy is to . . . . to . . .
Scharlach: To what? To make sure that no one on the globe really is all that different from anyone else?
Anarchist: You’re putting words in my mouth!
Scharlach: You just said a moment ago that you define democracy as a system of governance in which individuals group together to decide on things that impact them directly. So let’s look at the Afghan example: do you think it’s alright for Afghans to stone adulterers?
Anarchist: Of course not! That’s horrid! It’s especially horrid because it’s almost always the women who get punished, not the men! Misogyny!
Scharlach: Maybe. But I personally think Afghans have every right to stone adulterers if that’s their cultural consensus. Just as Americans have every right to jail anyone who stones anyone else, if that’s the American consensus.
Anarchist: So you have no problem with murder, slavery, genocide, so long as they’re “culturally consensual”?
Scharlach: I think that any attempt I might make—as an outsider—to solve a problem in Africa or the Middle East would only make matters worse. And you should agree with me, too, if you believe your own version of democracy just defined a moment ago. You need to ask yourself, if you’re such an anarchist, such a believer in organic decision-making among people involved in something, why do you feel this impulse to interfere with something happening in an alien culture five thousand miles away from you? Do adultery laws in Afghanistan “impact you directly”? Does slavery in Africa “impact you directly”?
Anarchist: First, even if it didn’t, we still need to take moral stances on some things. And, second, yes, it does: slavery in Africa makes electronics cheaper for me.
Scharlach: This is exactly what I was talking about at the beginning: in a democracy, it’s only a matter of time before everyone comes to believe that everything affects them directly . . .
Scharlach: And in the end, maybe everything does, in some Cloud Atlas kind of way, affect everyone at some level. Which is why the universalist democratic impulse is dangerous. When everyone has a voice about everything everyone else does, the world becomes its own tyranny.
At which point the anarchist blocked me from his Twitter feed.
There it is. Neoreaction’s first profile in a popular media outlet (Tech Crunch’s global Alexa rank is 371). It’s unfortunate that “monarchy” is the term that most people will now associate with neoreaction. Honestly, how many of us are hardcore monarchists?
An assumption linking all neoreactionary camps is that the ideal of universal democracy—of universal voice—leads only to demotism, idiocracy, tyranny, or all three at once. We are anti-universal democracy, yes, but that is not exactly the same as anti-democratic, and certainly not the same as monarchist. From the maxim “To all voice, no exit” there is still a long, long road to monarchy.
I think a fine case can be made for monarchy. But I think what neoreaction is after is naturally emergent hierarchy and order, an order with feedback loops to ensure the failure of things that need to fail and the success of things that optimize for human intelligence and flourishing. Such an order can take many hypothetical forms; indeed, on grounds of naturally emergent order and feedback mechanisms to ward off zombies, one can argue just as well for anarchy as monarchy. Those of us with a Landian bent would love to see all these hypothetical forms flourish, so we can see which ones crash and burn and which ones deliver the Singularity. (Honestly, at this point, my political utopia isn’t monarchy but a world in which one can shop for a geo-political home like one shops for shoes.) So, I respect and, after a few bourbons, sometimes agree with monarchists, but monarchism is not neoreaction any more than Steve Sailer’s citizenism is neoreaction. The beauty of the reacto-sphere is that, having recognized that our current homes may not be inhabitable for much longer, we’re all spinning our hypothetical habitable worlds based on our own visions of the orders and hierarchies we believe will naturally emerge once the social engineers fall and the world is freed from the Cathedral and her Stereopticon. Neoreaction, however, is not any one vision, any one habitable world. It is the belief that each man should be free to find his own world, his own home, and to build one if he can’t find it.
[I think there are problems with what I’ve just said, but I really wanted to connect my blog’s title to the discussion.]
ADDED: I want to save this excellent comment from comment-thread oblivion. WhiteDeerGrotto on the Tech Crunch article, Scott Alexander, and neoreaction more generally:
This article is a soft pitch left over the plate, waiting to be smashed out of the park. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this Klint Finley was a neoreactionary confederate, a planted heckler in the crowd, soon to be silenced by the magician.
At its heart, neoreaction is a critique of the entire liberal, politically-correct orthodoxy. The Cathedral, a term coined by Moldbug, is a description of the institutions and enforcement mechanisms used to propagate and maintain this orthodoxy. It would take more than some 100~300 word blog comment to adequately describe either the Cathedral or neoreaction, but Moldbug’s “Open Letter”, Nick Land’s “The Dark Enlightenment”, and Scott Alexander’s “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell” are all good places to start. All three are easily 10000+ words each. Neoreaction is a complete re-build of a political worldview. For those of us who have been indoctrinated since kindergarten that tolerance and democracy are the best things ever, this requires a through tear-down to the intellectual bedrock. Your patience will be rewarded.
Neoreaction does not have a single monolithic doctrine or political program. In its current state, it is, at best, a loose synthesis of various criticisms of our reigning liberal ideology. The politically-correct propagandists assert that humans are essentially interchangeable, regardless of culture or genetics, and that some form of multicultural social-welfare democracy is the ideal, final political state for all of humanity. Neoreaction says no. The sexes are biologically distinct, genetics matter, and democracy is deeply flawed and fundamentally unstable. It does not follow that all neoreactionaries are monarchists. The author is attacking a strawman.
The author of this article cites Scott Alexander’s anti-reactionary FAQ as if he were a shipwrecked sailor clinging to driftwood. Unfortunately, for him, Scott Alexander will not provide the salvation he desires. Alexander’s anti-reactionary FAQ is an impressive feat – it is nearly as long as a novel. But ultimately it is false advertising, because it does not refute any of neoreaction’s core criticisms of the Cathedral. Rather, it can be used as a guide to mark the current boundaries of neoreactionary thought. Where an individual neoreactionary writer has overextended his arguments, the anti-reactionary FAQ counterattacks, forcing back the salient. The monarchist position, for example, remains rather weak and underdeveloped, and Alexander pushes back quite effectively.
But this should give the anti-reactionary little comfort, because Scott Alexander himself has written one of the most effective, and persuasive summaries of neoreaction, as mentioned before, titled “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell.” It’s so effective, in fact, that his anti-reactionary FAQ doesn’t even address his own summary of neoreaction. When probed on this point, he argues that he had actually “steelmanned” (the opposite of strawman) neoreactionary arguments, and chose to attack weaker targets, such as monarchists. By his own admission, his anti-reactionary FAQ only attacks the periphery of neoreaction, while avoiding the core.
And it gets worse. Even if you take the “Against Neoreaction” list at face value, you are still miles away from the liberal orthodoxy. To cite Ron Unz as an opponent of neoreaction is laughable – that would be like a lamb enlisting the help of a wolf to fight a lion. Scott Alexander’s position is already a significant retreat from the liberal worldview. None of the people cited are actually interested in defending the blank-slate theory of humanity, or the globalist multicultural social-democratic project. Each of them have put up their own barricade of resistance on the road to reaction, yelling “Here, and no further.” They are better described as moderates on the Cathedral-Neoreaction spectrum.
Don’t take my word for it, read for yourself.
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.
I’d heard of Harvey Mansfield before. He’s somewhat popular in American academic circles for giving “ironic grades” to his students as a way to combat grade inflation—he gives a real grade (usually a low C) and then an ironic grade (usually a B or A) that goes onto the transcript. This way his students know they don’t deserve the higher grade they are getting.
He’s a Harvard professor of political science and a conservative. Usually, when I hear “Harvard” and “conservative,” I assume that it means “progressive by the standards of 1950.”
But then, prompted by Spengler’s latest article, I did some more searching and found this excellent interview with him from the Wall Street Journal. If you’re not acquainted with Mansfield, you’ll be surprised that someone at Harvard is not only a real conservative but a reactionary, anti-democratic one:
The political task before every generation, Mr. Mansfield understood, is to “defend the good kind of democracy. And to do that you have to be aware of human differences and inequalities, especially intellectual inequalities.”
American elites today prefer to dismiss the “unchangeable, undemocratic facts” about human inequality, he says. Progressives go further: “They think that the main use of liberty is to create more equality. They don’t see that there is such a thing as too much equality. They don’t see limits to democratic equalizing”—how, say, wealth redistribution can not only bankrupt the public fisc but corrupt the national soul.
“Americans take inequality for granted,” Mr. Mansfield says. The American people frequently “protect inequalities by voting not to destroy or deprive the rich of their riches. They don’t vote for all measures of equalization, for which they get condemned as suffering from false consciousness. But that’s true consciousness because the American people want to make democracy work, and so do conservatives. Liberals on the other hand just want to make democracy more democratic.”
Equality untempered by liberty invites disaster, he says. “There is a difference between making a form of government more like itself,” Mr. Mansfield says, “and making it viable.” Pushed to its extremes, democracy can lead to “mass rule by an ignorant, or uncaring, government.”
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.
Earlier this year, David Friedman found himself in a debate with two self-professed Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHLs for short, though I can’t detect any serious differences between BHLs and pro-capitalism neo-liberals). Friedman’s main charge against the BHLs is their attempt to smuggle a concept into libertarian philosophy that is neither well defined nor given objective parameters, namely social justice. The BHL definition of social justice is reliant on vague phrases like “special concern for the poor” and “minimally decent lives.” Friedman’s point is that if social justice is to be taken seriously as a politically or economically worthwhile concept, then its definition needs to be more rigorous. However, forcing the BHLs to formulate a more rigorous definition of social justice was like pulling teeth.
Part of my criticism of [BHL] Jason’s position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term “minimally decent lives.” In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.
That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that “minimally decent lives” in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.
. . . they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what “social justice” meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn’t.
For BHLs, social justice is emotive but meaningless: in other words, rhetorical.
In The New Rhetoric, legal philosopher Chaim Perelman has this to say about values like ‘Justice’ as they are used in argumentation:
Their claim to universal agreement . . . seems to be due solely to their generality. They can be regarded as valid for a universal audience only on condition that their content not be specified; as soon as we try to go into detail [e.g., about social justice], we meet only the adherence of particular audiences. According to E. Dupreel, universal values deserve to be called “values of persuasion” because they are “means of persuasion which are that and no more than that; they are, as it were, spiritual tools which can be completely separated from the material they make it possible to shape . . .”
It is thus by virtue of their being vague that these values appear as universal values and lay claim to a status similar to that of facts. To the extent that they are precisely formulated, they are simply seen to conform to the aspirations of particular groups. (76)
Terms like “social justice” and “equality” get their emotive power from being vague. This is why progressives generally don’t like agonistic, logical debate. Logical debate requires precise definition of terms from the outset; but a precise definition of terms would unmask the progressive insistence on “equality” or “justice” as what it really is: special-interest pandering or, in other cases, a bizarre form of post-millennial utopianism. (I don’t mind when someone like Eric Holder tells us point blank that justice for “his people” is what really matters; at least he is honest about his partisanship, not pretending that he actually has universal aspirations when using superficially universal terms.)
All sides in political discourse make use of vaguely defined, emotive terms. “Freedom” and “duty” are popular terms on the American right. However, the test of a political philosophy is whether or not these universal values can be defined more precisely without completely negating their emotive power or unmasking them as partisan rhetoric. My own journey away from de facto leftism began with a recognition that people on the right were much more willing to delve into the first principles behind and definitions of their emotive concepts and terms. Beneath their rhetoric was more than ‘mere rhetoric.’
Friedman’s debate with the BHLs demonstrates that the rhetoric of social justice is indeed built upon smoke and mirrors and does not even try to correspond to reality. There are no first principles or attempts at precise definition because the entire progressive political philosophy finds its reason-for-being in emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. For example, Friedman persuasively argues that when progressives talk about the human right to “minimally decent standards of living” or to the meeting of “basic needs,” they really mean humans have a right “to live in a way that I, an upper-middle class leftist, would vaguely recognize as comfortable and meaningful.” There is no attempt to give a precise calculus to the concept of a “decent standard of living,” no attempt to define or to formulate the cost of “basic needs.” Why? Because then they would start to sound like Friedman:
A reasonably objective definition of “basic needs” might be “enough food and shelter so that their lack would not greatly reduce your life expectancy.” To make it more precise, replace “greatly reduce” with “reduce at least in half relative to those who had such food and shelter.” What would that work out to?There are parts of the U.S. where housing is pretty cheap, down to about $100/room/month, probably less if I searched further. Assume that people are packed in ten beds to a room, along the lines of housing for tramps in London as described by Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. That gets annual housing cost per person down to about a hundred dollars.On further thought, that’s too high. There are parts of the U.S. where the weather is temperate enough so that living outdoors, perhaps with a roof to shelter you from the rain, is not a serious risk to health. So all you need is some empty land in such an area, enough roofs for everyone to huddle under when it rains, and local authorities willing to put up with the land being used as a refuge for the homeless. Cost per person close to zero. Add a little for porta-potties and a water supply.
The emotive power is gone, and with it goes the entire power of progressivism.
It’s human nature to be wooed by the power of emotive words and symbols. The power of religion likewise finds it fuel in the emotional needs of human beings. The value of a religion, like the value of a political philosophy, lies in its willingness to delve logically into the nature of its emotive terms and concepts, to prove that its emotive aspects do not rest upon rhetorical smoke and mirrors but rather correspond in some way to reality. (Whether those proofs are successful or not isn’t the point here.)
Humans have an uncanny ability to turn on the ‘logical’ or ‘realist’ part of their brain in one domain, but to shut it down entirely in other domains, to rely instead on emotion and subjective judgment, allowing themselves to be wooed by emotive words and symbols that in other contexts would send their logical brains into critical overdrive. It’s one thing to let the logical brain get turned off when attending to the kinds of needs fulfilled by religion—a recognition of sin, a need for forgiveness, a need for community, a need for spiritual comfort, et cetera. I think the needs fulfilled by religion are inherently emotional, inherently a-logical (I wouldn’t say illogical). And anyway, how a man works out his salvation is a private affair between him, his God, and perhaps his family. If such a process operates on emotion, what do I care? It doesn’t affect me, nor does it affect the world at large.
The trouble with progressivism is a) that it is emotive, b) that it is (unlike religion or right-wing populism) emotive and built on smoke and mirrors—emotive but meaningless, as we just saw—and c) that its meaningless emotionalism is designed to be coerced into the political workings of Western society.
Maybe coerced is the wrong word. There have been fights between left and right, yes, but the history of the West for at least 200 years has been the history of ever-leftward movement. An obvious reason for how the left took and kept power (not the only reason, of course) is that progressivism is, as Friedman points out about Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, vague enough to be emotionally satisfying.
Progressivism is feel-good words, feel-good symbols, feel-good rallying, feel-good values. What does it matter if progressivism takes reality into consideration? It feels fucking good. It satisfies the emotional needs of guilty egalitarians. It is emotive but meaningless, sure, but like I said, humans are perfectly capable of turning off the demand for meaning in order to satisfy the demand for emotional fulfillment.
Progressivism is a political platform of irrational emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. The history of progressivism’s leftward march is the history of people turning off their logical brains and booting up their emotions. Okay for religion. Bad for socio-political policy.
Sovereignty operates at different ‘scales’ and possesses different qualities at each step. But more than one type of ‘scale system’ exists.
My parents’ nucleotide assemblages, replicated in my mother’s womb in the form of Scharlach, exert their sovereignty over me at every second of every day. My behaviors are both constrained and dictated due to my genetics. This genetic sovereignty, which yokes all human individuals, operates at a ‘low scale’ but if we work our way up this particular scale, step by step, do we necessarily arrive at ‘high scale’ socio-political organizations? Not necessarily. We must be careful not to conflate different orders of ‘high’ and ‘low.’
Nick Land helpfully suggests “two tightly inter-connected but conceptually distinct ‘scaled’ orders”:
There’s a series of emergences, or their reciprocal reductions, which correspond to the structure of the complex sciences, with biology at the base, rising through levels of social organization (anthropology, micro-economics, political economy, international relations). The higher levels of this series, which rapidly lose scientific exactitude, are a kind of ascendant mirroring of the rigorous reductive series, down through biochemistry to sub-atomic physics. Then there are scales of a more strictly quantitative kind, which correspond to the size of complex systems, from specific intra-cellular chemical reactions, through physiology, population biology, and into ecologies of ever larger scope, eventually melting into terrestrial geophysics, and out into extremely under-developed forms of concrete cosmology.
The relevance of this is that it leads to some fuzziness about what is meant by the ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ scale. Is the difference one of systemic scope, or of relative institutional abstraction (and perhaps ‘dominion’ or ‘sovereignty’)?
The two ‘scale systems’ (if I understand Land’s point correctly) might be contrasted by the directness or linearity by which a higher scale emerges from the one below it, or conversely, by which a higher scale can be immediately reduced to the scale below it. Linguistics provides an obvious example of the first type of scale system proposed by Land: phonology emerges (more or less) directly from phonetics; syntax emerges (more or less) directly from morphology; stylistics emerges from syntax. All of this in the same way that biology emerges from chemistry. However, linguistics, broadly construed, also provides an example of the second type of scale system proposed by Land: language is embedded within a culture, a population, but in no direct way does culture emerge from syntax or stylistics. From language to culture, and vice versa, we are looking at just one level (perhaps the ‘rhetorical’ level) within the scope of a total human system, any level of which cannot be simply reduced to the levels below it.
Scale as (more or less) linear emergence versus scale as size/scope of a complex system. The latter is less tractable than the former. So, for the time being, we should construe the Sovereignty Scale as being of the first type. This makes things more clear (to be complicated later), but this is also the scale-type most amenable to the kinds of hierarchies that interest neoreactionary political philosophy. We are, in essence, bracketing out a discussion of sovereignty as it operates within the scale of complex systems, keeping in mind, however, that further down the road this other scale might clarify or productively disrupt the scale of linear emergence that we have adopted here.
We can still start with the individual for the sake of simplicity. But the scale we develop should ideally move ‘upward and downward’ rather than disperse downward, upward, and sideways simultaneously (which is, I think, what happens when we introduce a concept like genetic sovereignty over the individual).
Sovereignty operates at different scales. The scale system we are talking about is one of (more or less) direct upward emergence and downward reduction. Given this scale system, it makes sense to formulate a question of obvious reactionary interest: How does sovereignty flow down the scales?
[Reiteration: When talking about the size and scope of a complex system, it does not make much sense to ask “How does sovereignty flow down the scales?” because the answer will obviously be “It flows everywhere.” Everything in a complex system circulates in diffused, perhaps unpredictable ways. Not a very helpful heuristic. Yet.]
In a socio-political context, the individual is never only an individual. The individual is always already inserted into some hierarchy and thus always already inserted into the sovereignty scale. (Of course, some individuals try very hard to extricate themselves from these hierarchies and exist qua individual: in America, we call these people bums, and they usually sleep under freeway overpasses, entering sporadically into hierarchical relationships on the side of freeway on-ramps.)
The most basic hierarchy into which the individual enters upon conception is mother/fetus. This hierarchy exists at a certain position on the sovereignty scale: I would say that it exists within the Familial Scale. The basic hierarchical relationship at this scale is parent/child. Mother/fetus is simply one variation on that theme. The others are father/son, father daughter, father/mother, mother/daughter, father+mother/son, et cetera . . . If we are talking about the extra-nuclear family, we can complicate things, but we would remain firmly within the Familial Scale.
What emerges from the Familial Scale? We can quibble about this, and cultural parameters certainly come into play here (more on that in a moment), but my hunch is that the Neighborhood Scale (or perhaps the Town Scale) emerges from the Family scale. We can talk about family dynamics (nuclear or extended), but if we want to talk about something just beyond the family, we typically talk in terms of neighborhoods, ZIP codes, towns. What kind of hierarchical relationships do families enter into at this scale? For the sake of a simple and elegant theoretical framework, let’s continue our attempt to formulate them as dyads: For example, homeowner’s association/family, if we want to posit a Neighborhood Scale. If we want to skip to the Town Scale, then mayor/family, local city council/family, local police department/family . . . Perhaps these hierarchical relationships have variations on a theme, like we saw at the Familial Scale, or perhaps not.
Two related observations: 1) When we enter into a particular level on the Sovereignty Scale, power does not cease to flow; it does not reach stasis. Within each scale, hierarchical relationships–sovereignty relationships–still exist. These relationships are our first attempt to describe the qualities of sovereignty as it exists and operates at different scales. 2) Judging by the Town Scale, it appears that the higher we move on the Sovereignty Scale, the greater the proliferation of possible intra-scale hierarchy relationships, that is, the more possible ways power can flow at that scale. At the Family Scale, we have parent/child; if we bring extended family into this scale, we perhaps add one other dyad: elder/younger, with a few gendered and consanguinous variations. At the Town Scale, however, I can think of half a dozen dyads to describe how families are controlled by power-structures existing at this scale of local municipalities.
Hierarchical relationships, in the form of dyads, nested within a scale system. Sovereignty–power and control–operates between the dyads and between the scales. As proposed by Land, when working with this kind of linear scalar model, the higher we go on the scale, the more ‘abstract’ the levels become–but no less powerful because of it (more powerful, in fact).
So here’s a rough sketch, a first attempt, at modeling the Western socio-political Sovereignty Scale:
Some important observations:
1. It is important, I think, to model each scale as containing dyads: this allows us to reduce any particular scale downward, as far as makes sense, to real interactions between real individuals or groups without giving up the separation of higher-scaled orders from lower-scaled orders.
2. Power flows down the dyads and down the scales. This hopefully captures the fact that a man can in some sense be ‘sovereign’ within his own home (or that a mayor can in some sense be ‘sovereign’ within his jurisdiction) while simultaneously not being sovereign in the larger socio-political context. One thing that the model does not capture, however, is how the higher scales affect the lower nested dyads. For example, even within his own home, a man cannot be sovereign over all things at the Family Scale because State and Federal Scales do dictate certain behaviors within the Family Scale: a father cannot, without consequences, exert his sovereignty over his daughter by raping here; nor, in Germany, can a father exert his sovereignty over his daughter by educating her within the home.
3. This simple model is a first attempt to model the circulation of power (sovereignty) in a Western socio-political context, so obviously I have ordered the scales according to the orders of Western Society. The labels might change in other contexts, but I imagine that the general outline could remain the same: dyads nested with scalar levels.
4. As a first attempt, the model is clearly incomplete. Specifically, I don’t know where to put businesses and corporate entities into this model. (One way to side-step the issue is to argue that corporations are not exactly part of the socio-political Sovereignty Scale but rather exist on some other plane. This is an unsatisfying option.)
Corporations can be divided into scalar levels and dyads, but things get fuzzy when we take government regulations into consideration. Different levels of management emerge naturally upward or downward within an organization, but once you plug the organization into the socio-political Sovereignty Scale, the direct emergence breaks down. Corporate boards do not emerge in any linear sense into state regulating bodies. At this point, we would be talking about the other kind of scale, which models the size and scope of complex systems. And this would be expected: sovereignty between private corporate boards and state regulating bodies does not flow neatly in one direction: the two scales are implicated in a much more complex system of distributed power plays.
5. I am also unsure where the judicial system fits into the system, but the judicial system is clearly part of the socio-political Sovereignty Scale.
6. The model is hierarchical, but the dyads allow for interior branching. It is important to allow branching because the only way to solve the problems in (4) and (5), without abandoning the model completely, will be to start dividing the scale, in a tree-like form, into connected hierarchical scales. Branching. Inevitably, the branches will reticulate as we attempt to capture the more complex flows of power up and down the dyads, up and down the scales, and in between various scale branches. And thus, perhaps, will emerge the larger complex system of sovereignty from this initial attempt at a simpler, linear hierarchy.
State control is control by the whims of individuals and the fickle furors brought on by activists with megaphones. Market control, on the other hand, is control by an aggregate of individuals and interactions at distant and varied scales that are not human at all.
We are talking about ‘control’ here in both its diffused and concentrated senses, but mostly in its diffused sense: I am ‘controlled’ insofar as my behavior is constrained or dictated. All life, especially human life, is controlled. In and of itself, this fact is neither a negative nor a positive thing. It is what it is. Can we even imagine a universe without constrained behavior? In Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther argues that, contra the humanists, free will is an illusion; and yet Luther’s point, often overlooked, is that absent free will we still have a will. It is simply a bound, constrained will—constrained by sin, in Luther’s case; constrained by multiple scales of sovereignty, in ours.
My behavior was constrained from the moment I was conceived. Genetic constraints are perhaps the most basic form of sovereignty under which humans live. Geographic constraints are another: we don’t think about it in our globetrotting age, but for most of us, the ecosystem into which we are born exerts a serious influence on our development. Genes and geography—as close to a divine sovereignty as we’ll ever see imprinted on our lives. (And both are, naturally, linked.) We might put time into this category of divine sovereignty, as well.
What else constrains my behavior? While growing up, family constrains it. So do various actors in the social networks that I am allowed to inhabit in youth: friends, friends’ parents, teachers, pastors. As I grow older, these social networks expand, and in any one of them, I will find my behavior constrained or dictated, my will bound, in various ways at various times.
We work our way up the chain: from the genetic sovereignty which dictates that I am a white male who will never play in the NFL, to the family sovereignty which dictates that I am the product of a conflicted Catholic (mother) and Protestant (father) upbringing, to the federal sovereignty which dictates that I must relinquish some of my pay each month in taxes.
Sovereignty is scaled. Each scale has different properties and represents a different type of power, a different type of control that constrains or dictates behavior. Sometimes there are similarities from one scale to the next; sometimes there are not.
The most obvious—and most important—power elements that change from one scale to the next are:
(1) the number of people who are controlled
(2) the degree to which the sovereignty is implacable
The higher the measure given to (1), the higher in ‘scale’ the sovereignty is, while (2) measures the qualitative nature of the scale. In the case of my genes, only one person is controlled directly—me—but the sovereignty of my genetics is thoroughly unyielding. Great effort and advanced technologies are required to overcome my DNA.
In the case of families, only a few individuals are controlled. Depending on the family, the control may be yielding or unyielding, depending on the behaviors being controlled or dictated.
In the case of state or federal governments, millions of people are under control. The nature of that control—implacable or not—is probably varied, again, according to the behaviors being controlled or dictated. In principle, however, governmental prescriptions and proscriptions are necessarily implacable and always enforceable.
Sovereignty is an emergent property of life on earth. Meerkats have their matriarchies; lions have their prides; wolf packs have their alphas and their betas. We can be sure that some form and degree of sovereignty—some way to constrain and control the behaviors of individuals in groups—has been found necessary and optimal for human and non-human life to flourish.
But what are the limits to that sovereignty? Which types of control have emerged naturally, which are beneficial, which are harmful, and which are recent innovations that are in the process of proving themselves beneficial or harmful?
In Conservatism for Seculars, Razib Khan writes:
When speaking of politics, one must distinguish between organized institutional politics and politics as organized citizenry on a more human scale of interpersonal relations. Terms like Republican, Democrat, conservative, and liberal have valence as monikers that represent the tribes of organized politics, but too often when engaging in partisan discourse the principals forget that these high-level policy disputes have little meaning when stripped away from their mundane, even banal, interpersonal implications. One can have the politics of personal life without the politics of high-level policy, but one cannot have the politics of high-level policy without the politics of personal life.
Therefore, to begin any exploration of political ideology as it is lived in the world, one must start at the individual level and work up. In particular, one must keep in mind that individuals are embedded within social units: family, circles of friends, civic associations, and the like.
Towards the end of the essay, Khan argues that these ‘lower-scaled’ units have proven themselves to be more important to human flourishing than the ‘higher-scaled’ units of mass political organizing:
True flourishing begins at home with the understanding that the politics that truly matters is that of the family, of the neighborhood. This is politics that allows you to grow and develop as a human. It involves people one sees day to day, who will be there for you across the cycles of elections and even the rise and fall of nations. Instead of wondering how to reorder the lives of others, it would behoove us to look to see how we can order our lives properly and realize who we are in our proper context.
We can re-purpose Khan’s essay to argue that, if these lower-scaled units of human organization have demonstrated their importance and durability throughout history, then the hierarchies and degrees of sovereignty found within them should be trusted and affirmed. Sovereignty at these scales is the kind of sovereignty necessary—at least, seemingly necessary—for human flourishing.
The sovereignty of the nuclear family aligns thusly: Father to Child(ren), Father to Mother, Father/Mother to Children. These sovereignty relationships have worked well for much of the Western world. Similar family sovereignty alignments (with grandparents and various uncles or cousins added) have worked well for humanity in general. Therefore, this is a scale of sovereignty whose ordering we shouldn’t mess with too much. Attempts to undermine, re-order, or usurp the sovereignty operating at this scale should be viewed with extreme suspicion.
Has sovereignty operating at the scale of the nation-state proven to be as beneficial to human flourishing and advancement as the sovereignty operating at the level of the family? I think we can tentatively answer “yes,” but with qualifications, especially in light of the other question we’ve just introduced: is the ordering of state sovereignty—its alignments—optimal? Bizarre things have seemed to emerge from this scale in recent decades. Something about the way that power and control operate at this scale has led to its spiraling out of control. This Sovereignty Scale has grown tentacles that are reaching into and interrupting the lower scales. Things no longer seem to be ‘in their right place.’
Humans will always be under control, their wills always bound. How many people are controlled? How implacable is the control? Framing questions of sovereignty with the ‘scale’ metaphor makes these vital questions more approachable. However, scales of sovereignty are not always mutually exclusive or operating in non-overlapping domains. The addition of a ‘network’ metaphor is perhaps appropriate, but I don’t want to multiply metaphors, so it’s enough to recognize that the scales are nested. ‘Corporate boards’ or ‘federal government’ are still comprised of individuals, who are parts of families, parts of intimate friendships, parts of social networks, et cetera. Just because an individual finds himself in some sense sovereign at a very distant scale does not mean that he has resigned his role as a father, a son, a friend, a lover: the CEO of a major corporation, the president of a nation, or the sole heir of a billion-dollar philanthropic organization, though he has more power than most, is still embedded within more lowly scaled sovereignty relationships. He is still a father, or a son, or a husband, or a friend, or an employee, or a . . .
As Khan, Spandrell, and I have pointed out, these sovereignty roles and relationships at lower scales are more salient in peoples’ lives than the higher scaled roles and relationships in which they find themselves. Had Paris and Menelaus been merchants, their exertions of control over each other’s lives (over Helen) would not have affected very many people. However, as a king and a prince, they were able to send lots of men to their deaths—to exert control at a high scale—in order to sort out their lower-scaled penis envy. Just because you possess sovereignty at a higher scale, in other words, doesn’t mean the lower-scaled sovereignty struggles, the attempts to control or dictate other peoples’ behavior at a more personal or local level, are no longer in play. They are very much still in play. And if the latter bleeds into the former, high-scaled sovereignty becomes a liability issue for the millions of people under its implacable control.
Continuing Moldbug’s tradition of submitting ‘democratic’ society to Machiavellian analysis, Spandrell explains why rich and powerful Westerners do what they do and make the decisions they make. They do what they do for the same petty reasons any of us do anything: to solidify our friendships and to fuck with the people we don’t like. Writes Spandrell,
When you, politically awakened man, think about power, you have an abstract framework of what power does, and what it should do. You have your ideas on how society should be organized, and think that politics is about applying those ideas in absolute terms. But on closer inspection, it doesn’t work like that. George Soros didn’t buy shares of Herbalife because he has abstract beliefs on how the economy works and believes Herbalife is great value. Or he has abstract mathematical models that say that Herbalife will make him a lot of money. He has enough money anyway. Soros is probably buying Herbalife shares to fuck with Bill Ackman, another disagreeable Jewish banksta who seems to have very few friends.
All politics are local. Taken to its extreme, this maxim means that rich and powerful individuals make decisions affecting millions—billions—of abstract ‘others’ based entirely on the local realities of the rich and powerful themselves, that is, based on their relationships with other rich and powerful people they know, love, and loathe. The reality of democratic politics confirms Spandrell’s insight. Read any D.C. insider memoir. Petty social networking runs America. Justice? Founding fathers? Republican ideals? Bullshit. It’s all about who has what, who wants what, who’s a good drinking buddy, who’s a douche bag, and who knows how to play quid pro quo.
As Spandrell’s post reminds us, the Machiavellian impulse—the realist impulse—in neoreactionary politics is demanded and enabled by the insights of Darwinism and HBD. People are people. People are animals. (Or, as the trads put it, people are fallen.) We’re only a few evolutionary branches away from baboons. Civilization is hard.
Earlier discussions about sovereignty were prompted by the Moldbuggian question, “Is sovereignty conserved?” However, when I sat down to re-read the discussions about that question, I realized how rarely we talked in terms of HBD and Dark Enlightenment. In light of Spandrell’s cynically and darkly enlightened analysis of elite power plays, we should be prepared to answer Moldbug’s question with a resounding, “Yes, obviously.” Because mammals, especially humans, have evolved to do sovereignty.
I quote Bob Dylan:
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Ten thousand years ago, various populations of mankind realized that some control and coercion are necessary if we want to be more than naked, competing brutes. The libertarian paradise of complete socio-political freedom would, in reality, not even look like the Serengeti. It would look worse than the Serengeti. Most animal groups maintain cohesion and exert control through their own simplified hierarchies (e.g., lion prides or meerkat matriarchy).
There will always be sovereignty. There will always be someone to serve, someone or some group who has some element of control over certain elements of other peoples’ lives. This is a necessary condition for civilization.
Commenter Hypothetical provides the following quote from Frederic Jameson regarding two different mechanisms (state power and market power) by which mankind is controlled and thereby kept safe from his own brutish, stupid anarchy:
Hobbes needs state power to tame and control the violence of human nature and competition; in Adam Smith (and Hegel on some other metaphysical plane) the competitive system, the market, does the taming and controlling all by itself, no longer needing the absolute state […] the market is thus Leviathan in sheep’s clothing: its function is not to encourage and perpetuate freedom (let alone freedom of a political variety) but rather to repress it.
According to Jameson’s way of thinking, the state and the market serve the same end: ensuring that mankind does not devolve toward his animal instincts, toward a too-destructive competitive environment in which everyone loses. Dylan again: You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Indeed, as I said, you’re gonna have to serve somebody because the last 10k years of human evolution have taught humans that control and coercion are necessary, in some form and to some degree, for intelligence optimization and general human flourishing. If some freedoms are lost, so be it.
Control is necessary in some form and to some degree. That’s the key. Jameson is guilty of equivocation by suggesting that the “control” enacted by the state is of the same form or has the same effects as “control” enacted by market forces. Clearly, there is a world of difference between the two. State or political control is all too human, enabled by the petty politicking and social networking—the kind described by Spandrell—that we should expect from the human animal and from the human elite in particular. In other words, state control is control by individual politicians operating at local (petty, short-sighted, moralistic, status-whoring) scales. State control is control by the whims of individuals and the fickle furors brought on by activists with megaphones. State control is control by factional baboons who have lost their fur.
Market control, on the other hand, is control by an aggregate of individuals and interactions at distant and varied scales that are not human at all. Market forces are often intractable for any individual human or group, if not in the short term then certainly in the long term. I don’t think that economists really have any idea how these forces work; however, we can be sure they exist and that, like physical laws before Newton, they seem to work whether or not we can describe them.
Whom do I want to serve? Where do I want sovereignty conserved? In forces I don’t understand, not in individual human animals, whom I understand too well, and who are, in their competitive brutishness, apt to bring civilization tumbling down just to piss off other humans they don’t like or to earn a few status points in the short term.
A while back, James Goulding suggested that some of the conversations taking place in the reacto-sphere can lead or already have led to essays able to be re-packaged in the form of articles as rigorous and interesting as academic articles published by scholarly presses. I think he’s absolutely right. However, as we all know, 75% of things we publish on our blogs (75% of anything anyone publishes) is not worth saving. But it’s the 25% that we need to capture and publish in a more stable format.
To that end, I’m building an online journal for neoreactionary scholarship. I already have the basic CSS in place. I’ve been inspired by the launch of Theden, but I know that a web magazine is a lot of time and energy—content must be updated regularly. I imagine this online journal to be more academic, which updates once every three or four months with the best content written on blogs or submitted for original publication in the journal. A bit like La Griffe du Lion, but with a broader range of content (philosophy, linguistics, evo psych, alternative political structures, art and literature, religion, et cetera) and a much more aesthetic design. I’ll also ask submitters to provide at least some biographical information; they can remain anonymous, but a certain level of ethos needs to be built, and it can only be built by signalling credentials and experience. And honestly, the journal should consist of content that needn’t be anonymous. Screeds and real-talk have their place, but this journal will not be it. Rather, this will be the place for building a case for Dark Enlightenment that can be touted in the Cathedral without getting shouted down as blatantly ___________. The universities are incredibly powerful in shaping discourse and worldview; I think this would be one more strategy for setting up an antiversity.
I haven’t registered a domain yet because I don’t know what to call the journal. Consider this a call for suggestions. Leave your ideas in the comments, along with other recommendations for such a project.
I’ve withheld comment on the George Zimmerman trial because it’s not an edifying subject—it’s intellectual junk food, a soap opera. I agree with James Goulding that our blogs should elevate the discussion, which, if we want Dark Enlightenment ideas to spread, is a better strategy than writing screeds about “the Jews control America!” or “fuckin niggers at it again!”
However, the latest round of Zimmerman punditry deserves comment.
Matthew Yglesias, who is, if possible, an even whiter Spaniard than I am, writes the following in a post entitled “Bayes’ Theorem for Dummies”:
I think what Cohen really means to be arguing isn’t so much that neither he nor Zimmerman are racists, but that racism is the correct social and political posture. That white people have good reason to fear black men, and that therefore all black men should be put in a subordinate position. But as a logical argument, Cohen here is falling afoul of very poor statistical inference . . .
. . . the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street and begin treating them like criminals.
For example, since moving to a majority black city 10 years ago, it is the case that 100 percent of the people who randomly assaulted me on the street were African-American. And yet that was a single incident on one day out of thousands. The overwhelming preponderance of black men I walk past on the street on a day-to-day basis—even the young ones, even the ones wearing hoodies—aren’t committing any violent crimes. If I were to start questioning every single black male teenager I come across as a criminal suspect, I would very much be engaged in unreasonable behavior.
The critique is elementary. Formally, we may say that Zimmerman confused Pr(A|B) with Pr(B|A). Colloquially, we can summarize Yglesias’s critique thusly: “Even if most criminals are black, it doesn’t follow that most blacks are criminals. So it’s simply not logical to profile every black person you meet as being a criminal threat.”
Yglesias probably thinks his point is unanswerable. I’ll give him credit for at least attempting to return an element of logos to the seething pathos of this turgid affair. However, like the young college girl who first discovers that American settlers didn’t treat the natives too kindly, Yglesias is satisfied with setting his feet into the cement of his first rational step and not moving anywhere else.
From my perspective, his point is entirely answerable, and on purely rational grounds. It’s all a matter of returning logic to its context and filling in the priors.
First, Zimmerman was not following “all black men,” as Yglesias implies later in his post. Zimmerman was following a singular young black male, dressed in ill-fitting clothes, wandering a suburban neighborhood at night after a recent streak of burglaries committed by young black males in his neighborhood. 100% of recent burglaries had been committed by a marked population that constituted only a small percentage of the community’s whole population. Trayvon Martin, at various points of description, fit the marked “profile” of recent burglars.
As commenter Cail Corishev writes at Sailer’s:
I’m writing a Bayesian spam filter (based on Paul Graham’s Plan for Spam), and “profiling” is exactly what it does. There’s no one word that guarantees that a message is spam. But if a message contains 10 words that appear frequently in spam, and it doesn’t contain any words that appear exclusively in non-spam, the probability that the message is spam will be very close to 1.
That’s what profiling means. It doesn’t mean, “Stop all blacks because blacks are more dangerous than other groups”; that’s what liberals like Bloomberg do because they’re trying to avoid profiling. Profiling would have a cop say (pulling percentages out of my hat for the example), “Ok, there’s a young black man walking down the street in this neighborhood, so historical data says there’s a 5% chance that he’s up to no good. That’s not nearly enough to suspect anything. But he’s also wearing a hoodie, which adds another 5% (whether he’s black or white), and he’s hiding his face (another 3%), and keeping his hands shoved down deep in his pockets (another 10%), and his sneakers look brand new, which we’ve been told to look out for because a store was knocked over last night (another 20%). Let’s pull over and ask him where he’s headed …. Okay, he doesn’t seem to know this neighborhood (another 20%) so let’s chat with him a bit more…. Ok, he showed us what he was holding in his pockets, and it was liniment and denture cream that he said he’s taking to his grandma whom he’s staying with a few blocks from here (-30%), and he seemed friendly and relaxed while we talked to him (-10%), and offered to show us the receipt for his shoes (-30%). Seems okay, tell him to have a nice day.”
My limited knowledge of Bayesian statistics is, indeed, that it provides a framework for working with multiple priors for coming up with an averaged statistical probability. In other words, its entire point is to move away from the kind of decontextualized logic that Yglesias invokes, a logic that would make sense as a critique if Zimmerman (or anyone) had indeed been following every black male he met on a daily basis. But no one does that, so Yglesias’s invoked logic is really just a shot at a strawman.
Second, until the fight itself, Zimmerman’s actions were quite modest. The act of “profiling” or “being suspicious” is an act of personal caution, not a willful attack on someone else’s personal rights. (My crossing to the other side of the road while being approached by a group of young black males does not in any meaningful way affect the young black males. Zimmerman’s following Trayvon did not affect Trayvon.) Without his strawman (stop every black on the street!), Yglesias, I imagine, might modestly modify his claim: Zimmerman’s decision to follow Trayvon, or my decision to cross the street, remains illogical because, well, the same old same: “just because criminals are often young black males, most young black males aren’t criminals!”
The comments on Steve’s post provide many obvious rejoinders, which I paraphrase here:
The vast majority of grizzly bears don’t attack hikers, so it’s irrational for hikers to carry bear spray in the wilderness!
80% of lumps aren’t cancerous, so my mom was being irrational when she got hers checked out by a doctor!
The odds of my house burning down are at least as miniscule as the odds of any random young black male being a criminal, so I guess I’m stupid for having fire insurance. I’ll cancel it right away, Matt!
So on and so forth. One might also invoke the common airline policy of not allowing adult males to sit next to unaccompanied minors. Not all adult males are pedophiles, but most pedophiles are adult males. Betting that a given adult male is not a pedophile isn’t worth the risk, and is certainly worth the minor inconvenience of asking all adult males to switch seats in the event they are seated beside a young girl traveling alone. Liability issues, you know.
And that’s what this second point is really about: the logic of damages. In a purely decontextualized way, I know that Pr(A|B) is not the same as Pr(B|A). Given certain context and content, however, betting on Pr(B|not A) may carry serious consequences if, however unlikely, I turned out to be wrong. In other words, taking minor measures to avoid the risk of certain events or probabilities, however unlikely, is not at all illogical. In fact, in many contexts, we commend people who take these measures. We call it “planning ahead” or “preparing for all possible outcomes” or “erring on the side of caution.”
This all seems to me a perfectly rational rejoinder to Yglesias’s over-simplified evocation of Bayes and its implications for how Zimmerman acted. Zimmerman’s neighborhood had recently been burgled by young black males, a small percentage of the community’s population. Trayvon Martin was a young black male, which, of course, did not mean he was a burglar. However, the possibility that he was a burglar, however unlikely, was nevertheless, given demographic reality, modest enough to warrant a few minutes of Zimmerman’s time to check him out, because not checking him out (i.e., assuming that Martin was not a burglar) might incur greater damages to the neighborhood.
Are you not rationally persuaded?!??!!?!
Nope. Not Aaron Gross, one of Sailer’s progressive trolls:
the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street….
That’s absolutely correct. There may be other facts that imply it, but the facts that Cohen cites do not support it in any way. And it’s obvious that Cohen did get his conditional probabilities backwards, just as Yglesias pointed out. Cohen was talking about P(black|criminal), where a more relevant probability is P(criminal|black).
I haven’t read all the comments here, but from the ones I’ve read it seems that as usual, iSteve readers endorse the stupid, unsound argument over the intelligent, sound argument because the former supposedly leads to the desired conclusion.
Now, there may be a purely rational case against the one I’ve presented against Yglesias, another round in a logical tête-à-tête. However, Aaron Gross’s ostrich response is the most common one I’ve seen from the Left.
What am I to do with that? The “stupid” comments to which Gross refers lay out the same argument against Yglesias that I’ve provided here. To me, it seems like a perfectly reasonable counter-statement to Yglesias. To Gross, however, it’s the usual, unsound stupidity of biased proles grasping for rationalizations.
We’ve now reached the reason I brought this whole thing up: the incommensurable gap between me and Aaron Gross demonstrates that logic and reasoning are, in the end, absolutely worthless when it comes to arguing about social and political issues. It seems we cannot even decide on what constitutes “sound” versus “unsound” argument—on what constitutes rationality versus stupidity. More and more often, I find myself persuaded by Heartiste’s preferred tactics for cultural engagement: mockery and agitprop.
Which brings us back to the second sentence I wrote in this post: I agree with James Goulding that our blogs should elevate the discussion. But how can we elevate the discussion if the other side will never see as rational what we see as rational? What’s the point of trying to convert the Brahmins if they deride even a rational counter-statement as “stupid” and “unsound”?
At this point, I’m failing to see a point.
RELATED: Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. William Saletan changed his mind about the Zimmerman case. (But then, Saletan is probably just a closeted reactionary.)
I know this is lame to say out loud, but I honestly don’t watch television, so this may be old news to some of you . . .
2. The Citadel
3. Seasteading and Peter Thiel (I knew about this, but I’m linking because it fits)
All of this would make the ethno-nationalists happy, and I’d be happy for them. However, for us neoreactionaries with a techno-capitalist bent, I’m not sold on these plans, unless we can guarantee that they will be staffed with high-IQ Germans and many terabytes of computer space.
When the U.S. federal congress was given the power to do something, it clearly possessed the right to draft laws to execute that power. Nevertheless, to ensure that no one got any ideas about who was or was not under the power of those laws, the Necessary and Proper Clause and the Supremacy Clause were included in the U.S. Constitution. In Federalist 33, and in the context of the taxation question, Alexander Hamilton explains in clear terms why the Necessary and Proper Clause was (is) necessary and proper:
But SUSPICION may ask, Why then was it introduced? The answer is, that it could only have been done for greater caution, and to guard against all cavilling refinements in those who might hereafter feel a disposition to curtail and evade the legitimate authorities of the Union. The Convention probably foresaw, what it has been a principal aim of these papers to inculcate, that the danger which most threatens our political welfare is that the State governments will finally sap the foundations of the Union; and might therefore think it necessary, in so cardinal a point, to leave nothing to construction.
The Federalist Papers are nothing less than a Complete Treatise Against Exit. Our founding fathers knew that a Powerful Union would need all conflicts of interest between the states (slavery being the most prominent) to defer always to the interests of the One True State. To put it another way, in the interest of the State, the interests of the State are the only interests that matter. This is the principle upon which America as a nation was founded.
The State’s power is whole and complete, and its power is pointed in all directions, especially southward. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton knew that if he wanted to end slavery in the South, he simply needed to make the South part of the
North Union and enlist slaves to fight for the Union. In 1779, he wrote:
An essential part of the plan is to give [negroes] their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men.
Read it once more. If you didn’t catch it, perhaps you will the second time: one of the founding fathers thought that emancipation of slaves and the creation of the Union through revolution were one and the same project—or, at least, that the Revolution could be an opportunity for laying the groundwork for emancipation in the South. He surely was not alone.
I’m not arguing that slavery was moral. It wasn’t. However, it was primarily an economic immorality—it was wrong not because blacks were picking cotton and being mistreated but because blacks were picking cotton, being mistreated, and not being paid for it. Had plantation owners paid their laborers and allowed them some limited freedom of movement (a la the servants of the old English gentry), then slavery would have been no worse than the other forms of hard labor that were eventually ameliorated with technology and labor laws.
The point lies in how the Union solved the slavery problem—not by allowing time, technology, or incentives to do their work, or by leaving the South to its own immoral destruction, but by encompassing the South entirely under its moralistic, universalist, Puritanical power and saying, “You can’t do it that way.” No exit. This method set a dangerous precedent. Post-1865, it unleashed the leftward, ever-democratizing impulse of American politics, which was, of course, dormant but fully formalized in the nation’s embryonic state. I return you to the first Hamilton quote above.
(Had more of our founding fathers possessed the agrarian temperament of a Thomas Jefferson, the federal state may have contained seeds that would have blossomed into an eventual loosening of its own power. But that was an impossibility. Why would anyone drawn to the center want to loosen the power he finds himself embodying? Besides, agrarians don’t do well in the center by definition.)
It’s one thing to collect data about IQ across nations and races, or to describe the courtship practices of a remote African tribe. It’s another thing to use these data and descriptions to theorize about the heritability of IQ or the evolution of social behavior. And it’s quite another thing to extrapolate from these theories political policies about immigration, segregation, employment law, affirmative action, et cetera, et cetera.
On the road to reaction, one can stop at any point in this hierarchy of knowledge. One can believe IQ is heritable and still turn out a Marxist. Or, rather, one can believe that IQ is heritable but still believe other things that counter-act whatever reactionary opinions might have developed otherwise. Never underestimate the power of denial, the lasting effects of cognitive dissonance, or the moral obligations of social relationships.
Richard Weaver reminds us:
It is only the first step beyond philosophical naivete to realize that there are different orders of knowledge, or that not all knowledge is of the same kind of thing. First, there is the order of facts about existing physical entities. These constitute the simple data of science. Next come the statements which are statements about these facts; these are the propositions or theories of science. Next there come the statements about these statements. The propositions which these last statements express form a partial universe of discourse which is the body of philosophical opinion.
We should add that this third level includes statements of policy. We should also add that the three levels are not a strict hierarchy but that they connect and re-connect with one another in a constant loop. Even a collection of brute facts relies upon prior assumptions which are not themselves brute facts.
However, for the sake of illustration, we can treat them as discrete categories to better understand different Levels (or Commitments) of Neoreaction, as well as the different scales at which the Cathedral operates as a censor.
1. Collection of facts.
Demanding the freedom to collect facts about nature and humanity is, circa 2013 AD, a very basic form of reaction. It’s surprising, really, but the Cathedral does in fact censor at even this scale of knowledge. To bring up crime statistics (even without extrapolating higher orders of knowledge from them) can be a dangerous move in mainstream debates about racial issues; even video-taping these statistics in action can cause lesser Cathedral clerics to attempt censorship. Cultural anthropology, from what I understand, has largely abandoned the old model of pure description of tribal or non-Western cultures, having realized that simply describing the fact of, say, sati or African witchcraft might confirm stereotypes. So brute collection of certain facts is abandoned.
Some members of the broader Dark Enlightenment community—e.g., Steven Pinker—seem committed to resistance only at this first realm of knowledge. They resent that areas of research are deemed ‘off limits’ and thus resist academic conformity for the sake of free inquiry. But their reaction does not extend beyond this demand for freedom of inquiry. They are often careful—to a fault—about making theoretical statements regarding the facts.
2. Theories about the facts.
Napoleon Chagnon and Linda Gottfredson have both been ostracized by their respective communities because not only did they collect and report uncomfortable facts (on tribal life and IQ, respectively), but they also made statements about those collected facts: theories about kinship in ancient cultures in Chagnon’s case, and theories about IQ and employment in Gottfredson’s. Being willing not only to collect and consider facts about uncomfortable subjects but to theorize about what the facts might mean demonstrates a decent level of commitment to reactionary resistance. Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending are other examples of people operating at this level of knowledge.
Cathderal censorship is most explicit at this level. Being once removed from brute facts, the Cathedral can deploy ad hominem attacks, moral outrage, or strained sophistries about “the way the facts were collected” or “the way the facts have been misread” or “other evidence indicates something else (but don’t ask critical questions about this evidence, mind you).”
However, theorizing about uncomfortable facts does not mean moving into the final realm of knowledge—
3. Statements about the theories.
It takes true reactionary commitment not only to collect IQ data, not only to theorize that IQ is largely heritable, but to conclude that, say, because IQ is largely heritable, we should stop spending money on improving educational access for low-IQ populations and only allow high-IQ immigrant groups into the country (and kick out the low-IQ groups that have managed to get in).
While building the Network of Dark Enlightenment, I began to realize that one divide not often remarked upon is precisely this divide between the different levels of neoreactionary commitment, this divide between cautious empiricists merely devoted to free inquiry and balls-to-the wall ethno-nationalists willing to put the empiricists’ ideas to the political test.
If I were to draw a rough historical comparison, I would say that the difference I’m talking about is the difference between a Galileo, who simply wanted to prove that the Earth moves around the sun, and a Reformer who believed that the Earth’s movement around the sun was just one more reason why the Vatican needed to be usurped.