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.