Posts tagged “Political systems

Apocalypse Delayed

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.

A Dialogue

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?

Scharlach: Nevermind.

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 . . .

Anarchist: [Silence]

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.

A Response to Scott Alexander’s Response to my Response to Alexander’s Response to Neoreaction

I appreciate Scott Alexander’s willingness to address neoreactionary ideas at a deeper level than one usually finds in progressive screeds. He makes excellent points that force us neoreactionaries to sharpen our arguments and refine our positions. I wish we had more interlocutors like him. We often accuse the Left of operating in an ideological echo chamber, so we need to ensure that we are constantly deconstructing our own.

In any debate, the devil is in the details. Too often, however, we conflate the details with the debate itself. Arguments are nested within arguments, and within this nesting exists a hierarchy of importance. The crux of a debate rarely hinges on a single data point but rather on a collection of data, a preponderance of evidence, a forceful trend in one direction or the other. The tête-à-têtes that make up a debate move that force toward one position or another. But we should not confuse this small movement with an end to the debate writ large. No one is going to change his progressive or reactionary mind based on, e.g., the results of an argument about the Roman corn dole.

With all that in mind, I’ll address some points brought up by Alexander in his counter-argument, recognizing, from the outset, that many of these issues are nested within a larger argument over worldviews, and that any one of these sub-issues are but one node within a larger argumentative network. Let’s not lose the forest for the trees.


Part I. Rome. 

Alexander’s reformulation of his original argument brings me into almost entire agreement with him. He writes:

The original question was whether ancient Rome could be called a progressive society. I say it was. Scharlach objects that it wasn’t, because it didn’t have the particular brand of progressive philosophy we do today. But I respond that the philosophy is irrelevant to what we presumably care about – social policies and social outcomes. Policies (like welfare) and outcomes (like the existence of a large class of welfare-dependent poor) were the same in classical Rome and modern America, and for the same reasons. Therefore, it is correct and useful to call classical Rome an early progressive society, though with the obvious caveat that it did not go as far in that direction as our own.

I did indeed object to the labeling of Rome as “progressive” because Rome “didn’t have the particular brand of progressive philosophy we do today.” I don’t think Alexander negates my objection. Rather, he simply argues that my point is irrelevant—“philosophy is irrelevant to . . . social policies and social outcomes.” The title of my original post was The Motives of Social Policy. Ergo, my entire post is irrelevant. However, the way Alexander re-frames this question of social policies and outcomes, I agree that my post is irrelevant. Let’s not quibble over semantics, Alexander says, providing instead a wonderfully Machiavellian analysis of “progressive” societies wherever they may be found and whatever their political ideals:

According to legend, Frederick the Great declared of his conquests: “I will begin by taking. I shall find scholars later to demonstrate my perfect right” (okay, Reactionaries, I will admit Frederick the Great was hella cool). If Frederick was in the welfare business, he might have said “I will begin by giving welfare. Later, I will find scholars to come up with a philosophy supporting welfare.” . . .

I’m sure if Frederick conquered both classical Rome and 21st-century America, his Roman supporters would declare he was following the will of Jupiter, and his American supporters would declare he was trying to help disprivileged minorities.

Indeed! Most neoreactionaries strain to make this same point: progressive lip-service to “social justice” is in fact conquest by other means (c.f., e.g., demographic history of Los Angeles or Detroit). Progressivism is about grasping power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict. I am in total agreement with Alexander here.

Alexander also writes:

States that are militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized tend to adopt progressive policies (here I am confusingly lumping some values like multiculturalism in as policies, but you know what I mean). Ancient Rome and modern America are both militarily secure, economically advanced, multicultural, and urbanized.

Again, I am in complete agreement on this point. Just now I wrote that progressivism is the means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict. Societies that cannot afford conflict are precisely the successful and secure ones. Neither neoreactionaries nor Black Panthers are going to war because that might cost them their Netflix and Starbucks, not to mention the USG would be quick to throw them all in jail.

One more time, then: Progressivism is the political means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict because it has become urbanized and economically advanced. For example, in a society in which blacks, mestizos, whites, Jews, and Asians all live within a few hundred yards of one another, and they all live relatively comfortable lives, sheltered by a strong economy and national military . . . why the hell would you light the fire of ethnic tensions in that society? Much better to circulate false memes about equality and acceptance. These memes keep the ethnic tensions in check. Who knows? Maybe some day all the ethnics will actually believe these bullshit memes. Someday . . . In the meantime, it’s enough that they pretend they believe them, so that everyone can enjoy their Netflix.


One small point of continuing disagreement with Alexander over the Rome question. He writes:

If [Scharlach’s] essay is trying to compare the grateful Roman poor and the entitled, demanding modern poor, I propose that the Roman recipients of the annona were as entitled and demanding as any modern.

They may have been equally demanding, but what they were demanding was very, very different. I can feel sympathy for an underclass that demands its right to basic food items. I can feel no sympathy for an underclass that demands its right to, e.g., free tax credits for purchasing $2500 hand bags.


Part II. Alexander’s Progressive Values Equation. 

This whole discussion is interesting enough, but it is mostly valuable as an entry point into a more basic discussion about the emergence of progressive values. Alexander provides an equation for this emergence:

Urbanization + Growth -> Social Change -> Progressive Values

(really the “social change” node should be called “pressure for social change”, and it and the “progressive values” node should have little circular arrows both pointing at each other, but let’s keep it simple)

He provides an example of his equation:

A 25th century historian, looking back at our own age, might notice two things. She would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, everyone started getting very fat. And she would notice that suddenly, around the end of the 20th century, the “fat acceptance movement” started to become significant. She might conclude, very rationally, that some people started a fat acceptance movement, it was successful, and so everyone became very fat.

With clearer knowledge of our era, we know better. We know that people started getting fat for, uh, reasons. It seems to have a lot to do with the greater availability and better taste of fatty, sugary foods. It might also have to do with complicated biological reasons like hormone disrupters in our plastics. But we have excellent evidence it’s not because of the fat acceptance movement, which started long after obesity rates began to increase. If we really needed to prove it, we could investigate whether obesity is more common in populations with good access to fat acceptance memes (like, uh, Wal-Mart shoppers and American Samoans).

To us early-21st century-ites, it’s pretty clear why the fat acceptance movement started now. Its natural demographic is fat people, there are more fat people around to support it, they feel like they have strength in numbers. and non-fat people are having trouble stigmatizing fat people because it’s much harder to stigmatize a large group than a small group (no pun intended).

Once more, I broadly agree with Alexander here. Now, at some point, once the progressive values are in circulation, a feedback mechanism emerges that accelerates the social change. But Alexander is correct that before those values enter wide circulation, certain social, political, or demographic conditions must already be in place. Obviously! There needs to be fat people for there to be a fat acceptance movement. (Likewise, there needs to be a lot of people divorcing and already-progressive divorce law before you get no-fault divorce.)

Let’s input some specifics into Alexander’s equation relating to fat acceptance. We could quibble about the inputs, of course, but this is just an illustration:

Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Progressive Values (fat acceptance movement)

I agree with this equation, but I agree with it as a purely descriptive matter. The equation captures how progressive values emerge from diverse material conditions, but as a normative matter, I think this equation is precisely the problem. Once Social Change and Progressive Values enter into a feedback loop, sooner or later, there is no incentive to combat the inputs leading to the emergence of that feedback loop. Again, as a normative matter, I don’t think that “obesity” is a value my culture should adhere to, and I certainly don’t want to see people “optimizing for obesity.” But that is what may be happening. Why? See the equation.

To combat the feedback loop, you need to combat its inputs, if possible. How do you combat the inputs in the equation above? There are many ways to do it, but one way not to do it is to foster the progressive value of fat acceptance. If obesity deserves our respect and acceptance, then what incentive exists to combat the root causes of obesity? We might for a while pay lip service to the idea that “well, fat acceptance is not about refusing to combat obesity but about being nice to fat people. We want both!” You can’t have both. If a society decides to be nice to X, then X it will accept and X it will have because X will eventually become normalized. Indeed, isn’t that what the fat acceptance movement is all about? Normalizing fatness? That is the end result of Alexander’s Progressive Values Equation: normalization.

Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Progressive Values (fat acceptance movement) = Normalization (fat is a normal and legally protected way of life) 

I would rather see the following equation:

Urbanization (more sedentary lifestyles) + Growth (more access to sugary foods; hormone disrupters in plastics) –> Social Change (more fat people) –> Reactionary Values (tough love on the obese) = Incentives (combat sedentary lifestyle, sugary foods; surgery; etc.)

Now, obesity is largely genetic, so I don’t think we should shame fat people any more than we should shame low-IQ students for dropping out of high school. Fat Shaming Week was about pushing back against the normalization of obesity, not about making fun of fat girls. However, by responding to Social Change (more fat people) with Reactionary Values (tough love on the obese), the end result is not normalization of obesity but the creation of a society in which fat people want to combat their own fatness to the best of their ability, with help and support from the skinnies who have set the anti-obesity standard. Will all obese people lose weight? Of course not. Like I said, there are obvious genetic issues involved, as well as intractable environmental issues. But there will be more weight loss and less obesity in general in a world that responds to increased obesity rates with Reaction rather than Universal Progressive Acceptance. And I think that, up until now, America has generally responded to obesity in a wonderfully right-wing manner. As I said, the fat acceptance movement is still fringe. The only fat people I know who want to be accepted as such are my far-left colleagues; my Spanish family is quite large, but all of them actively try not to be, and some have been quite successful.


The fat acceptance movement is still fringe, but growing (heh heh). It may grow very quickly because we live in a hyper-mediated world in which memes circulate swiftly. However, will it grow because there are more fat people?

Alexander seems to imply that numbers drive this emergence, from social change, of progressive values of acceptance:

To us early-21st century-ites, it’s pretty clear why the fat acceptance movement started now. Its natural demographic is fat people, there are more fat people around to support it, they feel like they have strength in numbers. and non-fat people are having trouble stigmatizing fat people because it’s much harder to stigmatize a large group than a small group (no pun intended).

Indeed there are more fat people around today. But what do we mean by “more”? As I discussed in this post:

The population increases, but the percentage of people committing themselves to political movements probably stays the same. But . . . math: the population increases, the percentage stays the same, but nevertheless the raw number of people getting involved in politics increases. Conservatives in their 70s and 80s are asking themselves, “Where did all these wierdos come from?” There is not a higher percentage of people than ever feeding their bizarre Rights fetish; but there are more people from which the same percentage of political malcontents can be gathered. Ergo, seemingly more wierdos with a Rights fetish. And they are the people who matter. Neither the nation at large nor the fickle politicians notice the 90% not agitating for political movements; they notice the 10% who do. They’re the few, the proud, the Neopuritans with a megaphone and an attitude that says, ‘by any means necessary.’

More fat people are not needed to fuel a fat acceptance movement. More fat people willing to start and agitate for a fat acceptance movement are needed to fuel a fat acceptance movement. But there needn’t be very many of them. I think Alexander is wrong to implicate Social Change with large numbers of people. If it were a matter of numbers, the LGBT movement should never have gotten off the ground. Only about 5% of the population is LGBT, and certainly only a small percentage of that already small percentage is willing to agitate for LGBT rights. If you add in the straight “allies,” maybe you get back to 5% of the whole population agitating for LGBT rights. Yes, 5% of 300 million is a lot of people, but it’s not a lot of people given the total population.

The conclusion I draw is that the influence of political agitation does not control for total population size. This fact is the basis of pressure politics. Pressure politics—and its latest manifestation, “shame politics”—relies on that relatively small percentage of the population that is bored or unemployed enough to commit to political agitation. The progressives win because they know pressure politics. They know how to control the breeze to create the appearance of a storm, which ends up causing a real storm. Progressives know they don’t need ‘the people’—an empty rhetorical concept—they just need a few percent of the people. And they need just one percent of that few percent to agitate, to scare CEOs into firing people, to scare politicians into voting for progressive policy.

Alexander’s equation is incomplete. He seems to assume that Social Change will be widespread, and the widespread nature of Social Change leads to Progressive Values, a natural emergence. But the change needn’t be widespread at all. In terms of pure percentages, there are no more LGBT individuals (or blacks, for that matter) in America today than there were 100 years ago. It should, in Alexander’s terms, still be easy to stigmatize these small groups. In reality, though, people lose their jobs and are socially shunned if they stigmatize these groups.

Small groups with great political Voice. A progressive thing. Which would be fine if these groups were agitating to terra-form Mars or build a Death Star. They aren’t. What are they doing instead? Go back to the strategy with which we started:

Progressivism is the political means by which individuals grasp power in a society that cannot afford the costs of direct violent conflict because it has become urbanized and economically advanced.

Neoreaction is, in part, the realization that progressivism is power politics among groups who don’t think they have enough power and are putting all their energy (and, ultimately, the nation’s energy) into gaining the power they believe is rightly theirs. Left unchecked, this progressive impulse can lead nowhere but down, into cultural and intellectual decline—just like Rome.

Uninhabitable California 1

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.

The Motives of Social Policy

Everyone has read Scott Alexanders’ anti-reactionary FAQ. Handle is probably right not to let Alexander frame the debate by responding directly. However, one issue Alexander brings up is something I’ve thought about addressing myself, so I may as well address it in response to his FAQ. It has to do with the genealogy of progressivism.

Moldbug and most neoreactionaries situate progressivism within post-Reformation Protestantism, claiming that the nearest ancestor of contemporary progressivism is 19th century millennial theology. Alexander wrongly associates our genealogy with Calvinism: “So please, tell me again how utopian desires for peace and social justice were invented wholesale by John Calvin in 1550,” he writes. I don’t know anyone who claimed that, and if someone did, I would thoroughly disagree with him.

However, Alexander’s larger point is that social policies that look an awful lot like modern progressive policies clearly existed before the Reformation. He travels back to Rome to prove it:

The ideals commonly called progressive predate Calvin by several millennia. Consider the example of Rome. The early Romans not only overthrew their kings in a popular revolution and instituted a Republic, but experienced five plebian secessions (read: giant nationwide strikes aiming at greater rights for the poor). After the first, the Roman government created the position of tribune, a representative for the nation’s poor with significant power in the government. After the third, the government passed a sort of bill of rights guaranteeing the poor protection against arbitrary acts of government. After the fifth, the government passed the Lex Hortensiana, which said that plebians could hold a referendum among themselves and the results would be binding on the entire populace, rich and poor alike. By the later Empire, even slaves were guaranteed certain rights, including the right to file complaints against their masters.

The Romans pioneered the modern welfare state, famously memorialized by its detractors as panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Did you know welfare reform was a major concern of Julius Caesar? That ancient Rome probably had a higher percent of its population on the dole than modern New York? That the Romans basically worshipped a goddess of food stamps?

. . . Equality has a clear antecedent in the plebian secessions of ancient Rome, peace in the Pax Romana, social justice in the Roman welfare system, and community in…well, it’s so broadly defined here that it could be anything, but if we’re going to make it the leadership of benevolent public servants, let’s just throw in a reference to the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic (yeah, fine, it’s Greek. It still counts)

First, it’s problematic to associate the plebian secessions with “strikes aimed at greater rights for the poor.” The plebian strikes were in fact aimed at greater rights for plebians, who could be wealthier than the patricians. Most of them were what today we would call the lower-middle and middle classes. Alexander is playing fast and loose with his definitions, as he does in most of his FAQ.

The more important point worth looking at is Alexander’s discussion of the Roman welfare state. Alexander could easily have looked outside ancient Rome to find examples of what he calls “progressivism.” E.g., in Islamic society during the age of the Caliphate, or in the charity policies designed by the Church in the Middle Ages. But the question is: do these seemingly “progressive” policies stem from what today we would consider progressivism? Do they have anything to do with “social justice”? We should remember that when looking back at history, curious similarities arise, but they do so at incongruous joints, and their existence may not signify anything but the fact that large-scale political ecologies have limited practical expressions. Think of it this way: A society whose political discourse and ideals sanction welfare to the poor because it is believed that the underclass is genetically inferior, incapable of taking care of itself, and might revolt if not given enough food . . . that’s a very different society from one whose political ideals sanction welfare because it is believed the poor have a right to good living standards or that the poor deserve welfare because it re-distributes goods rightly theirs but taken from them through an oppressive economic system.

Contemporary progressive policies emerge from ideals and discourses about morality, justice, oppression, and rights. The poor (especially the dark-skinned poor) deserve the welfare they get; it is theirs by Constitutional right. It is a moral and political imperative not to take away the welfare they receive and to give them more if possible. Progressives actively try to alleviate the shame once associated with receiving welfare. Pointing out that the poor in America have it pretty good is a distinctly right-wing thing to do. “Food stamps” are now “EBT cards” that look and function like debit cards.  Medicaid patients sit in the same waiting rooms as patients paying high insurance premiums, and you can’t tell the difference. (Well, you can, but . . .) Welfare in America has become a right, a moral imperative, a matter of justice and just desserts, a thing that brings no shame, a thing to be proud of, a thing to demand, a thing to stand up for.


When categorizing social policy, the motives and ideas behind a policy are just as important as the policy itself. Among the ancient Israelites, slaves and indentured servants were freed every 50 years, during Jubilee. But obviously, Jubilee should not be compared to 19th century abolitionist movements. Roughly similar policy. Very different motives. And a very different context. Abolitionists did not argue that the slaves should be freed and the fields laid fallow because the Sabbath demands rest and that, as servants of God, men should not always be bound to serve both man and God. The moral fervor of abolitionists was cranked up much higher than that and drew from new and radical Protestant theologies that mostly eschewed the Bible. The Good Book is clear that, outside of Jubilee, slavery and servitude are fine with God as long as masters treat their slaves decently. (But as far as I know, not a single abolitionist took the position that slavery needn’t be abolished as long as laws were passed to ensure the better treatment of slaves.)

So Scott Alexander is correct that social policies in ancient Rome look similar to contemporary progressive welfare policies. But were the motives the same? Did the poor and the plebians get free or reduced-cost corn, grain, wine, and olive oil . . . . because they deserved it? because it was theirs by moral and legal right? because it was a matter of social justice?

I’m not a classicist, so I’m willing to be corrected on this, but as near as I can tell, the Roman dole was wrapped up in discourses about a) the might and wealth of Rome and b) goddess worship. Welfare policies in ancient Rome were built upon very different ideals and emerged from very different motives than contemporary progressivism’s welfare policies.  Nowhere have I been able to fine a discussion of the Roman congiarium in terms of rights or justice. The dole was there because it made the emperor more popular and demonstrated the wealth of Rome to the people. What’s more, the dole was personified as Annona, a goddess to be worshiped and thanked. Scott Alexander even recognizes this difference in motive when he says that ancient Romans “worshiped a goddess of food stamps.”

Indeed they did. And that’s the whole point. When was the last time you heard welfare policies discussed in terms of worshipful gratitude, mercy, and thankfulness? If that were the discourse surrounding welfare policy, America would be a very different country. It seems that Roman welfare and American welfare are as different from one another as Jubilee is from abolitionism.

Harvey Mansfield, contra American democracy

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.”

Population and Pressure Politics

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.

Scales of Sovereignty (part 3)

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.

Scales of Sovereignty (part 2)

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.


In Western states, sovereignty is obviously distributed and thus diluted in any individual instance. We are not a monarchy. Commands are not issued from a single person or even a single seat of power. This is elementary, as James Goulding writes:

Once we fracture sovereignty, the people with a “shard of sovereignty” take decisions that depend very heavily on other minds, many of which also have a bit of sovereignty. This means that each micro-ruler takes decisions quite differently to a sovereign; not only is the scope of his influence or probability of making an impact much smaller, but when he does have an impact his decision algorithm is best explained by a complex chain of causality that weaves through millions of other minds. Unlike Hitler.

So far, so good. In fact, Goulding’s point about micro-sovereign decisions depending on other, micro-sovereign minds is a significant one. It even prompts an analysis of power from the perspective of network theory: how does fractured “sovereignty” circulate? what makes one node more central than the others? how far removed are the nodes involved in any single decision, and can they be clustered in any meaningful way? So on and so forth.

However, Goulding’s next move is, in my opinion, too overstated:

It is unnecessary to specify exactly how this chain of causality works in each case, although that is a central problematic of political science and law. Clearly, “shards of sovereignty” are not at all similar to “sovereignty” and require a completely different kind of analysis.

A completely different kind of analysis? A more nuanced analysis, yes. Shards of sovereignty: each dependent on the motives and actions of other shards: each existing within an as-yet-undefined network of power. Yes, different from the singular seat of power, different from the divinely mandated king whose mind and motives are the fons et origo of all social and political decisions. But different in degree and operation, not in kind.

Looking at political sovereignty from the other end, does it make much of a difference whether we’re talking about shards of it or a monarch? Does it matter to the small business owner, who must pay a minimum wage and provide healthcare to his employees, whether the force of these laws emanated from a single source or from the concerted effort of a hundred nodes distributed throughout a network?

Command and control is diluted across “shards of sovereignty” so no one shard can do all that much without taking the others into consideration, but in the end, decisions are made, and they are binding, and they do control the populace either directly or indirectly.


In attempting to match our words, concepts and analyses to the reality we are trying to comprehend—in all its complexness multiplicity—we should also strive to avoid the postmodern mistake of missing (or, rather, refusing to recognize) the obvious forest for the sake of charting the intricacies of each and every rhytidome.

Sovereignty and Loyalty

Peter A. Taylor writes:

I want to frame this sovereignty question in terms of loyalty. To whom is the army loyal? If the king gives an order, can he count on it being obeyed? If he can’t, it doesn’t follow that there is someone else who can count on the soldiers’ loyalty. Loyalty is not conserved.

To which Nick Land replies:

“Loyalty is not conserved” — that’s probably correct, but it’s a conclusion of great significance (as we’ve seen) and therefore not to be lightly assumed. Given the soundness of the sovereignty / loyalty substitution — which does indeed work well — should we not expect a ‘Moldbuggian’ rejoinder, in the form of a conservation theory of loyalty? For instance, an argument that, whilst loyalty can be displaced, it is not actually extinguished?

Does the sovereignty/loyalty substitution work well? I’ll tentatively answer “no,” suggesting instead that a test of sovereignty is its ability to maintain itself without full loyalty from the governed.

Are Western governments, media, and academia sovereign? Yes. They face no serious challengers. Worse, their constitutions (or, in academia, the unwritten rule of “academic freedom”) are moot. The entire point of a constitution is to control not sovereignty per se but the struggle for sovereignty on the part of competing political actors. Today, within each sphere—government, media, academia—competition is nonexistent. No one disagrees on anything of substance, and anyone who tries to disagree quickly finds himself agreeing, is neutralized, or sells out.

We conclude that no one seriously challenges the status quo because no one seriously wants to challenge the status quo. We know that not everyone is loyal to the President, not everyone is loyal to all members of Congress, not everyone is loyal to the State Department, not everyone is loyal to Harvard or the media. Well, you can’t please everyone, right? What matters is that most people are loyal, yes?



1. There is loyalty, in various measures.

2. There is disloyalty, in various measures.

3. There is lack of loyalty but no active disloyalty.

What matters is not (1) but (3). It doesn’t matter that most people are loyal, it just matters that most people aren’t actively disloyal.


Sovereignty does not rely on loyalty. It relies on a contented populace, that is, a populace that may not be overtly loyal but is not so disloyal that a critical mass of individuals defects to Russia or marches on Downing Street with semi-automatic weapons. The same goes for a standing military. The sovereign entities don’t need red-blooded loyalty from the privates or even the generals. They simply need to avoid active, willing, dangerous disloyalty. And there’s a lot of wiggle room between the two.

Anecdotal example:

I have two very close friends who did tours of duty, one in Iraq with the Army, the other in Afghanistan with the Marines. Both joined before America had officially invaded Iraq. One is a hippy dippy Leftist, the other a Right-wing gun enthusiast. The former joined in order to get money for college (he had a Hendrix mentality about the military: “I hate war, but I respect a fighting man”); the latter joined because he wanted to blow things up and kill ragheads. The former is now working in the healthcare professions and has a heart for social justice; the latter is now a police officer and has a heart for racial profiling.

Both friends, for very different reasons, severely disliked things about the government while they were actively fighting on its behalf. The Leftist was principally anti-war, had nothing nice to say about Bush, and is now active in anti-drone protests. The Right-winger was pro-war, but came to realize that the war in Afghanistan was being waged very stupidly; he also hated Bush’s stance on immigration.

In short, neither had a fierce loyalty to USG or even liked the high-ranking officers in their units. But they fought anyway. They had their personal reasons for fighting, just as both had their personal reasons for disliking the Cathedral (too Leftist in one’s opinion, not Leftist enough in the other’s), but ultimately, the only reason that mattered to the Cathedral was this one: nether was disloyal enough not to fight; more importantly, neither was disloyal enough to fight for the other side.

That’s sovereignty secured.

On a similar note, students bitch about academia all the time. “Why do we have to take these general education courses?” is a familiar refrain. If the general education requirements were annulled, the Cathedral would suffer a serious blow because most of the progressive brainwashing takes place in these courses. Nobody likes them at the time; students take them anyway. Why? Not out of loyalty to academia or the progressive intelligentsia. Most students aren’t even loyal to the virtues of knowledge and inquiry, as framed by either the Right or the Left. However, they aren’t so actively disloyal that they level a challenge at the academic wing of the Cathedral. They make do. They grin and bear it.

Again, that’s sovereignty. Not the ability to command widespread loyalty. Not even the ability to permanently disable or exile challengers, because a state with many challengers is, from the sovereign’s point-of-view, an unstable state. Rather, sovereignty is the ability to make sure the governed just don’t care that much. “Happily contented peasants,” as Chesterton said.

I’ll refine that: sovereignty is the ability to make sure that would-be political challengers just don’t care that much, that they are content enough not to follow through on their challenges. It doesn’t matter whether they’re loyal; it simply matters that their disloyalty is neutralized, atrophied, ultimately non-existent.

Here’s Fred Reed with an apropos word:

How does one tell whether one is living in a dictatorship, or almost? The signs need not be so obvious as having a squat little man raving from balconies. Methinks the following indicators serve. In a dictatorship:

(1) Sweeping laws are made without reference to the will of the people. A few examples follow. Whether you think these laws desirable is not the point. Some will, others won’t. The point is that they were simply imposed from above. Many of them would never have survived a national vote.

Start with Roe vs. Wade, making abortion legal, and subsequent decisions allowing late-term abortion. Griggs versus Duke Power, forbidding employers from using tests of intelligence, since certain groups scored poorly. Brown versus the School Board and its offspring requiring forced integration, forced busing, racial quotas, and so on. The decision that Creationism cannot be mentioned in the schools. Decisions forbidding the public expression of Christianity. The decision that citizens can be stopped and searched without probable cause. The opening of the borders to mass immigration.

These are major, major laws grossly altering the social, legal, and constitutional fabric of the country. All were simply imposed, mostly by unelected judges against whom there is no recourse.

Note that there is no practical distinction between a decision by the Supreme Court, a regulation made by an executive bureaucracy, and a practice quietly adopted by the intelligence agencies and federal police. None of these requires public approval.

None of these requires public approval, and they may not get approval for a time, but just wait a generation. The challengers won’t really challenge anything, and their kids will accept it outright.

Sovereign law, in other words, does not need loyalty. It simply needs the loyalists to be loud, obnoxious, and willing to shame anyone who shows signs of disloyalty. Time takes care of the rest. The seeds of active disloyalty never grow. They wither. They turn into resignation.

ADDED: Case in point.

Struggles for Sovereignty

“Sovereignty is conserved,” says Moldbug. “You can spread it around, though, but don’t expect to enjoy the result.” He says this in the context of the early Arab Spring, and in light of more recent history, one can see why “spreading around” sovereignty is to be avoided. However, I’m not sure that “to spread around” is the correct verb for our direct object in this context. It seems to me that the various Arab Springs, from Egypt to Syria, have unleashed a struggle for sovereignty. To what extent can we say that any one side of the struggle, in either country, possesses a stable sovereignty over the other sides? To no extent at all. Otherwise, there would be no real struggle. What we see in the Middle East is what happens when sovereignty (e.g., Mubarak’s and Assad’s governments) is shattered, leaving a power vacuum in its wrecked wake. The vacuum is filled with forces coming from all sides, and whoever fills it ultimately exchanges the force with which they filled it for a more lasting power. Sovereignty over the others.

I’ll revise this in two seconds, but for now, the “struggle for” sovereignty in a power vacuum is not the same as “spreading around” sovereignty that already exists, which, in my mind, is synonymous with an attempt to bind sovereignty by not allowing it to come formally to rest in any one unconstrained person or oligarchy. Nick Land’s description of the American constitution:

. . . the founders envisaged the grounding principle of republican constitutionalism as a division of powers, whereby the component units of a disintegrated sovereignty bound each other. The animating system of incentives was not to rest upon a naive expectation of altruism or voluntary restraint, but upon a systematically integrated network of suspicion, formally installing the anti-monarchical impulse as an enduring, distributed function. If the republic was to work, it would be because the fear of  power in other hands permanently over-rode the greed for power in one’s own.

The ongoing debate, recently rekindled, is over whether or not real political sovereignty can, in fact, bind itself. What does the binding? If the answer is “constitutional rules,” then there is a chance that power can indeed be bound, albeit with difficulty. If the answer is, “Don’t you mean who does the binding,” then clearly, as Moldbug argues, sovereignty is always conserved—whoever does the binding on the sovereign is himself (or are themselves) the sovereign.

Now, to spread around sovereignty is to bind sovereignty . . . but no, that’s not right at all, or, anyway, it’s only half-right. Is not the Cathedral’s power “spread around”? In the Cathedral itself, is there not a tripartite division of power, three component units of disintegrated sovereignty, formalized as the Media, the USG, and Academia, each of which, within itself, contains further divisions of power? But these divisions are not there to constrain the Cathedral’s power over the West.


There are two ways to understand the concept of rules that bind sovereignty.

1. Rules that bind the sovereign.

2. Rules that constrain the struggle for sovereignty so that no would-be sovereigns can ever rule permanently or wholly, or take over violently.

I think the original intent of the U.S. constitution had (2) in mind, not (1). Of course, (2) assumes that different actors on opposing teams are always trying to attain power. What happens when all the actors are, as it were, on the same team?


Look again at Nick Land’s quote above. I think the crux of the paragraph comes at the end, not at the beginning. “A division of powers” or “component units” are necessary but insufficient elements of a disintegrated sovereignty in which each unit or division is bound by the other. The sufficient elements are “networks of suspicion” and “fear of [the others’] power.”

Per (2) above, constitutional rules only bind power in the USG when there is a real struggle for power, when those playing the game honestly want to see different outcomes—I win, the rest of you lose. Perhaps we can read The Federalist Papers (more generously than I have in the past) as the rules that peacefully constrain the struggle for sovereignty. More, they lay down rules that not only constrain the struggle for sovereignty but also ensure that no single victor can ever emerge wholly or permanently. Absent such rules, the struggle for sovereignty looks like Syria. With such rules, the struggles for state control are always constrained—everyone wants to win, but no one really can, at least not for good—so absolute sovereignty is constrained de facto. If a particularly bad administration comes to power, the country just needs to ride it out for a few years while the gathering forces against it do their work via the proper, procedural, and, most importantly, peaceful channels.

But as I said, this game of constraint, this division of power, only works if you actually have different teams competing in the game. Our constitutional rules are constraining the current players . . . but all the players are on the same team.


Sovereignty binds itself through constitutional rules = There are rules in place to constrain the struggles for sovereignty within a state

When the competing political actors all more or less resemble one another, all the rules do is to procedurally maintain housekeeping and settle minor tactical disputes.


Once the struggling political actors are struggling for more or less the same thing—once all the would-be sovereigns share the same vision of sovereignty—then it doesn’t matter a whit that power is formally divided. The “networks of suspicion” and “fear of others power” no longer exist in any meaningful way (if they ever did?).

It doesn’t matter that the system was set up to ensure the game never ended because now the game doesn’t need to end. The victories of one side are either indistinguishable from those of the other side, or they move the country in the same direction, albeit at different speeds. The opposing teams are not enemies struggling for power but, say, departments in a corporation competing for an annual sales prize on more or less friendly terms.

Corporate divisions of power work because (pardon the Jesse Jackson-ism here) the divisions share a same vision. Rarely will you find a corporation in which one department is full of people trying to completely change or overhaul the company. So too with the Cathedral. The divisions of power are not checks on power because no one is competing to overthrow the Cathedral; the divisions exist to “spread around” or perhaps “spread out” the Cathedral’s power in all the directions that matter, for the benefit of the Cathedral in general. Power plays within it are not power plays against it. So, in the game of American and, more generally, Western politics, the continuing play on the field is now for the benefit of the spectators, who think a game is still being played in earnest by sides who really are different from the other sides, who really are competing against one another. By and large, they aren’t.


Can sovereignty bind itself without the existence of another, greater sovereign to do the binding? I’ve ignored this question for now. Instead, I’ve tried to explore the idea of bound sovereignty by shifting what we usually mean by that term—binding sovereignty can also mean constitutional rules designed to peacefully constrain struggles for sovereignty. It seems to me that the American founding fathers were concerned with controlling these potential struggles, so that armed and violent revolutions didn’t happen every decade or two, and so whoever did attain a degree of sovereignty could be kept in check by others who had attained degrees of it elsewhere in the divided government. Networks of suspicion and fear.

The fathers failed to assume, however, that, at some point in the future, a meaningful struggle would cease to exist, that all powerful actors in the public and political spheres would not differ too widely in ideology or direction, that there would be a sovereign who exists without meaningful competition. The other, Moldbuggian question of bound sovereignty is so difficult because it’s so new, so unprecedented.

Can the Cathedral be bound at all by what remains of the West’s constitutions? If so—if it can be meaningfully challenged—then that’s a good sign for the constitutionalists among us. The upcoming decade will be interesting. For the first time since 1945 in Europe (since 1865 in America), something like real political challengers have arisen. How will they fare? The Tea Party gained a modicum of power via proper, peaceful, constitutional channels, as did Golden Dawn. If Golden Dawn goes the way of the Tea Party, however, I think we can give up all hope of sovereignty’s ability to constrain itself through constitutional rules.

ADDED: One of Nick Land’s comments at Outside In is pertinent. At certain points, perhaps I’m too hastily conflating Power and Sovereignty:

It’s tempting to equate ‘sovereignty’ and ‘power’, but it leads to confusion. Power is quantitative and hierarchical — the existence of a superior authority does not negate power. Power is not diminished by being exceeded. (It is like wealth in this respect.) Sovereignty is different — it is by its essential nature ultimate. Sovereignty belongs exclusively to the final authority in a chain of command (whilst power is distributed unevenly throughout it).

‘Power is conserved’ means that there is always final authority.