A problem distilled by admin:
“Extend-and-pretend” — or radically finite reality denial — is an engine of catastrophe. It enables negative consequences to be accumulated through postponement . . .
Yet the accumulation is a slow one, so perhaps there is no reason to expect a singular catastrophe recognizable as such. We’re not talking about volcanoes and meteorites but large-scale economic, social, and political phenomena. In the context of such phenomena, catastrophe, in Eliot’s words, may be a slow whimper until we run out of breath rather than a cataclysmic bang with an instantaneous reckoning.
Catastrophe—finally hitting the wall of reality—may in the end be local, diffuse, an ongoing yet controllable thing. The politics of the last decade might be read not as “extend and pretend” but as “scatter the negative consequences.” Shifting the metaphor, we should not ask “When does the pressure finally explode?” but “How do governments (and their functionaries) release steam at the margins?” Of course, we can also ask, “Where does the steam escape on its own, regardless of planned release?” The Cathedral is not stupid; perhaps it doesn’t let negative consequences accumulate so much as cook the books, fudge the ledgers, and move money between accounts (shifting metaphors again). State and federal policy as an endless series of maneuvers designed to keep the Good Ship Society afloat indefinitely, water flooding in through a thousand small holes but pumped out again through a thousand more poked by the shipbuilders.
Catastrophe is thus framed as a local event. Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt, the Fed prints more money. Another Detroit neighborhood loses electric power, another D.C. neighborhood gentrifies thanks to federal salaries. Or, in the social realm, a white Bosnian is killed in Ferguson, but now black Africans are “Christian terrorists.”
None of this is to say that a game of “scatter the negative consequences” can go on indefinitely, despite what its planners might think, anymore than a game of “extend and pretend” can go on indefinitely. But it is to say that the endgame exists, by design, on a much longer time scale than any of us realize.
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.
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.
One question we’re all interested in is whether or not progressivism’s social justice crusade is an earnest crusade or just a sheen to disguise the fact that social justice warriors are actually motivated by what reactionaries assume everyone is motivated by: money and power.
Via the Sacramento Bee:
State Sen. Ron Calderon accepted about $88,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent posing as a film studio owner and a Southern California hospital executive . . .
[The FBI affidavit] details an arrangement to funnel money for the Calderon family’s later use through a nonprofit organization run by his brother Tom Calderon. It describes an instance in which Calderon hired a female undercover agent as a staff member as a favor to another undercover agent despite her apparent lack of qualifications for the job. It says that as Calderon steered legislation, he asked those he thought would benefit to secure jobs for his children, Jessica and Zachary.
“One way you could be a real help to (my daughter) is, you got any work?” Calderon said to an undercover agent posing as the film studio owner during a June 2012 dinner in Pico Rivera, according to the affidavit.
“I told you, man, anything you can do, any help you could do for my kids is, is – you know that’s, that’s diamonds for me. That’s diamonds.” . . .
Eventually, Ron Calderon’s older brother Tom entered the picture. He is a former assemblyman who works as a consultant for businesses that lobby the Legislature.
They cut Tom Calderon in, according to the affidavit, bringing the [undercover] agent’s monthly contribution to $10,000, including $2,000 to cover taxes, $3,000 for Jessica Calderon’s “job” and $5,000 for Tom Calderon’s consulting fees. Those were to be paid through the nonprofit he runs, called Californians for Diversity. Later, Ron Calderon and the agent discussed skirting suspicion by passing money into the Calderon Group, Tom Calderon’s consulting company . . .
After the undercover agent boasted to Ron Calderon about securing $50,000 a year from a three-picture deal, the two discussed what to do with the windfall.
“I mean, if there is something that you think that I can do to help you out with that fifty each year, you tell me. And, I will set it up,” the agent said, to which Ron Calderon, according to the affidavit, replied, “Right.”
Over time, Calderon drew down the $50,000 by asking for a $3,900 deposit into the Ron Calderon for Controller 2014 committee; a $25,000 infusion for his brother’s nonprofit, Californians for Diversity . . .
The affidavit also relates how Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, brokered a deal with Calderon following a tiff within the Latino caucus over who would serve as its chairman. Ron Calderon had been in line to become caucus chairman in December of last year. But Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, had the position and wanted to hang on to it.
In exchange for Calderon backing away from the chairmanship and allowing Lara to keep it, the affidavit says Calderon told the undercover agent that de León told Calderon he would give him a paid appointment after he left the Senate and $25,000 in “seed money” from one of the caucus accounts to “hire consultants and do presentations.”
Campaign finance records show that a fundraising committee connected to the Latino caucus gave Californians for Diversity $25,000 on Jan. 2, a month after Lara was elected to remain chairman.
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.”
In its general, ill-defined sense, “pressure politics” was introduced by whichever hominid first realized that the easiest way to influence his leader was to gather a few malcontent males to look intimidating so that the leader decided, Ok, yeah, you guys are right, we’ll move to the next valley in search of food even though my harem likes this valley because it’s close to the river. No violence or mass revolt needed. The threat of it works fine, too.
In a more concrete sense, pressure politics could only have been invented in a democratic society powered by mass media. Wikipedia tells us that its origins are most commonly associated with 20th century social reform movements—specifically, the temperance movement, the most utopian of all progressive movements. And the master of pressure politics from the social reform era was Wayne Wheeler, the architect of Prohibition:
Discovering the power of utilizing mass media to exert pressure on politicians is usually attributed to Wayne Wheeler, the de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League. Under his mentorship, a number of skilled practitioners of pressure politics emerged within the league. One leader of the league testified that prior to [Prohibition’s] passage in Congress, he had compiled a list of 13,000 business people who supported Prohibition. They were then given their instructions at the crucial time:
“We blocked the telegraph wires in Congress for three days. One of our friends sent seventy- five telegrams, each signed differently with the name of one his subordinates. The campaign was successful. Congress surrendered. The first to bear the white flag was Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. He told us frankly he was opposed to the amendment, but since it was apparent from the telegrams that the business world was demanding it, he would submerge his own opinion and vote for submission.
Politicians in a democracy are like willow reeds. The lightest breeze, they bend that direction. That is a feature, not a bug, of democratic politics more generally. Whoever can channel the breeze can control the entire political climate and eventually cause a typhoon.
In less metaphorical terms, 20th century progressives realized, quite brilliantly, that the pressure in pressure politics can do its work without actually assembling that much pressure. (Just a few malcontents can look intimidating.) The appearance of pressure—the appearance that ‘the people’ want something—is far more important than the substance. To make it appear as though the people want something, you don’t need the people. You just need the rhetorical construct and 13,000 businessmen with varying degrees of sympathy to your cause. Not even the businessmen. Just their names, per Wheeler.
Take any national population. Only a certain percentage of it will care enough about politics to involve themselves in politics in any way. Only a certain percentage of that percentage will be committed enough to become persistent activists.
In the past, when most of the population was busy tending gardens, raising livestock, and feeding itself, not many people got involved in politics. Today, much of the population is no longer busy, so we can expect an increase in the number of people getting involved in politics, but still, most people don’t get involved, and the statistical limitations noted above are still in effect.
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, 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.’
10% of 50 million can do a lot of damage. 10% of 300 million . . .
Online, it’s easy to agitate. You may be committed to anti-racism in only the vaguest, “I don’t want to be an ass hole” kind of way, and that’s all the Progressives need because all they need you to do is tap a dozen keys and hit Enter. In Wheeler’s day, there was a measure of commitment to be made on the part of the agitators. A letter had to be hand-written and posted; a long walk into town had to be made if you wanted to protest or send a telegram. Today? Don’t leave your bed, you can still sign a petition or share a link.
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. And with increasing population (of the inherently leftist sort) and increasing proliferation of mass communication, pressure politics is easier than ever. The progressives know they don’t need ‘the people’—which was always an empty rhetorical concept—they just need one percent of the people. And they need just one percent of that one percent to agitate, to scare CEOs into firing people, to scare politicians into voting for progressive policy. With the right leadership, a few hundred thousand puritanical Liberal Arts students can control the political climate and thus control the immediate fate of the nation.