Monday, October 10, 2016

Columbus Day

So it's Columbus Day again.

If you don't hate this holiday, then you aren't paying attention. Maybe you just decided to accept the paid day off from your employer and enjoy it without thinking. That's genius. Keep doing that. Really, close this page and for the love of God don't listen to anything anyone has to say about Columbus.

To those who are paying attention, it's a glorious day to be reminded that who we are as a nation was built on a foundation of theft, brutality, and murder. Appropriately, it's always on a Monday.

Almost every article published about the holiday today was a reminder that support is growing for a new holiday, Indigenous People's Day, which has already been passed by about forty local governments and a few states. This way, we can be reminded that European white society is the aggressor and non-white societies are the victims, now with 20% more self-righteousness! 

Nothing new here. In this surprisingly good article from the Atlantic, you can see that the holiday was politicized for the sake of racial and nationalistic interests from the beginning. But in the last century, the minorities were looking for pride in themselves instead of shame to throw on others. Now, it's different: Columbus has come to represent a certain historical perspective that absolutely relishes in telling people that European culture is morally illegitimate, and will not abide any telling of history in which it isn't drawn in the most reprehensible light possible. 

And by European moral standards, there's plenty of that reprehensible history to be had. Yes, we took the continent when we ran into it. Yes, we enslaved or killed people who were already living here. Yes, the body count is high, exactly how high we're not sure, just on the disease vector problem alone. And yes, the cultures of those people lost influence after we made contact, often because Europeans with power actively suppressed them.

I've been exposed to this perspective my entire life, and after thinking it through, my personal point of view is simple:

I don't care. 

I'm white, English speaking, and irrevocably the product of a liberal culture. Back in the day, there was a conflict of interests, and the society that is responsible for my existence won. You want me to feel guilty about it? Fuck right off, buddy. Hell, I'm going the other direction: the moral perspective which lead us to so much guilt is repulsive and stupid.

You can see this throughout the blog you're reading. It's pretty much what I do.

I don't reject European violence and power, and I see no reason to, given that every society on earth has its roots in aggression and war. Instead, I reject self-flagellation for the winning side based on morally universalist principle, which has roots in Western religious thought. It's pointless, self-loathing, and deeply irrational. No sensible historian could imagine, say, Romans feeling guilt like this after taking over a new territory. It's a completely Judeo-Christian, slave-morality attitude.

At the very least, Western morality needs to be understood as something that applies to your in-group, and extending it to those outside the group is a decision, not an obligation. Being good to outsiders frequently works out well, but strategically, if inclusion means that your society ends up disempowered, then it's perfectly rational to reject it.

This is the perspective of a powerful society. Which we are. You can embrace it without celebrating brutality for its own sake. And if you want to live in a society that's considered legitimate and good, then you don't have much of a choice anyway, because no society has ever thrived on guilt alone.

Now, I'm going to grab something to eat and go to work, which is near-pointless since all the banks are closed and I can't make orders or deposits. Fucking Columbus...

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Trump Structuralism

Fun election this year. I'm no Trump booster, but this campaign season seems to actually be using ideas I've written about for the last few years, in ways I would have found impossible when I started this blog in 2012.

I love this. I love this so much I'm pitching a tent that sleeps ten, and I will enjoy the moment before Trump is crushed. Legitimate alt-right ideas getting attention in a mainstream presidential election? Mother of God! When Hillary Clinton is calling personal friends of yours "irredeemable", then you have to feel satisfied.

Specifically, there are a number of people now openly saying that this year's election is about globalism versus nationalism. I've said big things about the death of structuralism, but because of this election, we will know much about how the gen pop feels on the subject by November.

The ideas I've been hacking through over the last couple of years aren't exactly nationalism versus globalism, as I'm not necessarily a nationalist, either. Nationalism is just a certain defined scale of social organization and social identity, but it works as a stand-in for promoting groups instead of individuals. My focus has been on deconstructing individualism in its cultural form, ie globalism, which is on the opposite side of nationalism.

What I've learned throughout this little journey is that Trump has stumbled backwards into a real divide in social philosophy, where the differences go further than skin deep, whether he knows it or not. We need an explanation for this. And as your friendly neighborhood structuralist, I think I can boil a lot of this down for the uninitiated.

Unity is Overrated

I'm a structuralist because I think groups matter and have agency, which is distinct from sovereignty. It's a purely practical definition where the group is bound only by its ability to continue to exist. These groups exist largely to compete with other groups, and everything sophisticated about humanity is the direct result of the pressures which come from this competition.

This conception has a factual basis in the distribution of attention; a group with agency is a group that holds and regulates the attention of its people.

This hold on attention is predicated on power, exercised by a hierarchy. Sometimes, it's blunt, forceful power, like violence or economic leverage, which holds a people's attention. This works - we are all descendants of groups that started this way - but it's not efficient. An efficient group wants trust and good faith from its people, so the main strategy for effective hierarchies is investing the attention of its members into common symbols, ideas, and maybe a defined mythos which can shape the mind and build a common identity.

If you get invested in a group, your emotions reflect it, through increased concern towards those who are a part of it and some comfort in its way of doing things. Commitment and loyalty become your moral watchwords.

When Jonathan Haidt built his five-channel morality and explained that liberals are only interested in harm and fairness, of the remaining three channels, two of them - loyalty and authority - are purely about maintaining faith in a hierarchical group. The convention for groups is so long-standing that we have evolved into it.

This is at the root of what liberals call discrimination. Group agency moves within a framework of rational self-interest. People pay more attention to their in-group, they care about them more and trust them more. You care more about your friends, the people in your neighborhood, the people in your church, the people at your work, and the people in your country than about those outside of these institutions. Their business is your business. That's an extension of the idea that you should care more about your mother than about someone who's name you pick randomly out of a Latvian phone book.

So, is discrimination the problem or the solution?

Bluntly put, leftists think it's the problem and conservatives think it's the solution. The Trump conservatives understand, even if they aren't fully aware of it, that morality is subjective and part of a cultural system. They also understand that any group with the prerogative to save you also has the prerogative to punish you. That's not a "should", it's a fact, as those in the group can create harm by simply choosing not to help and making you carry your own burdens.

On the other side, a globalist sees morality as universal, and divides up issues as matters of cooperation versus competition, almost always preferring cooperation as a general moral good. So their vision almost always supports helping when anyone is in trouble. As a corollary, they despise allowing any form of punishment or deprivation to cause pain, particularly for ordinary - AKA low status - people.

Practically, what this universalism means is that they don't effectively recognize jurisdiction, not really. If someone is being hurt in Orlando or Paris or Addis Ababa, they think it's their business. They are moving towards a unified global standard of governance, being "global citizens", respecting not group agency but "sovereignty", which comes loaded with all sorts of Western moral concepts about what constitutes a legitimate source of authority, and the global institutions that are being set up in the name of human rights have no problem damning and refusing to recognize a hierarchy otherwise still in power when it acts in its own interests as a group.

This is, of course, their own internal culture at work. The globalist side has its belief system and mythos, too, particularly the assumption that most conflict and separation in the world can be tracked to exploitation by powerful people, and the assumption that those without power would be only to happy to live and work in harmony with all others if those sociopaths with power would just stop.

Those are people with formal power, mind you, like businessmen and enemy politicians. They have their own power structure, but it's not formal power. It's informal: media and education do the heavy lifting, never coercing anyone but changing their minds by presenting information, exploiting their strength in gathering attention, convincing people of their perspective and gaining their trust implicitly. Democratic elections are usually downstream of this process, which is why they subscribe to democracy so enthusiastically.

Although many - hell, most - conservatives buy into this as well, Trump's people are essentially saying "no" to this arrangement, and they have their reasons.

Political Economy

It's easier with an example, so here's the obvious one: Trump supporters and their economic nationalism.

In this country, we have an extremely complex system of employment law. We have overtime, health insurance legislation, COBRA, 401k's, Social Security, subsidies of all kinds, some of it paid for over generations, much of it developed by the political left and, whether we like it or not, pushed onto American workers and employers at serious cost. Many people on the left have noted that Trump supporters are good with most of these programs. They got used to them a long time ago.

Enabled by communication technology, globalization has pushed the workers covered by this legislation into direct competition with people in other countries which have little or none of these costs, largely Mexico and China, often without even bothering to collect taxes on the imports. So Trump's people also know that, when an employer has to pay for the higher cost of living and social programs here, but not there, the other side has a comparative advantage.

The globalist side has seized on this as an opportunity to present the "real" problem: asshole greed from the rich has disenfranchised these people, who are then manipulated by a right-wing Fox News narrative into resentment against foreigners, similar to their racial arguments. And they believe this resentment is an ugly moral side of America that needs to be rejected.

For them, the real America promotes human rights, not American prerogatives, and wants to see everyone do better across the planet. So they are loathe to take away the economic development that American investment brings to other countries. Americans, they say, should be competitive in a global marketplace, not a national one, and should become competitive by spending increasing amounts of time in college. This plan requires that almost everyone in the country become a white collar professional, which requires large doses of government assistance. Education and health care are a good start, paid for with taxes from - you guessed it! - the rich greedy assholes in the 1%. It's all their fault anyway.

In other words, when leftists look at the situation, they see the need for a more organized global governance. They've been saying this for years about environmental legislation; climate change requires action everywhere to be effective, not just in one country. With trade imbalances, it's the same deal, although the lack of international oversight bothers them more when you bring up exploitation of the working class in other countries. They worry that national governments won't protect their people enough. And of course, there's no way they will tolerate rich people running off to tax shelter countries like Luxembourg instead of turning their "fair share" over to their people in the government.

They've been scaling up this way for a long time. Communities and states couldn't handle the pressures created by national corporate power after Rockefeller, so regulation of those corporations became a national issue. And now, the national government says it can't handle multinational corporations, so we've created free trade zones, the WTO, and the TPP.

It's a safe bet to assume that nations will be subject to supranational governments soon enough. It's already happening in Europe, where the Euro currency has bound everyone together in ways that defy even basic sovereignty. Germany is now subsidizing Greece, and simply because Germany is rich and Greece is poor, there's mounting pressure to just write off hundreds of billions in loans for the sake of preventing systemic shocks from Greece leaving the Eurozone. It's never really accepted that Greece's pathetic working culture simply sucks, that they really do owe every lender they've taken on, and that they have no business sharing an economy with a country like Germany.

In a similar way, American labor policy amounts to a subsidy for foreign labor, benefiting them at the cost of American workers. Whether it benefits corporations who have to compete with each other on labor costs and invest billions outside the country to stay competitive, or consumers who get cheaper goods at the cost of living in an economy with far less blue collar labor demand, is questionable at best.

Underneath all this, I think that as far as Trump's people are concerned, you don't need more managed redistribution to make the economy work for them. Regulated markets are the game here, how we distribute resources in this country. They aren't afraid of a market... so long as the other people they compete with for jobs have a similar cost of living, expectations, and legal situation as they do. Mexican and Chinese workers do not. Trump is not an eloquent man and he hasn't made this case clearly, but that's obviously what's going on.

These people want more discrimination, namely the discrimination of a national government prioritizing the people within their nation over the people outside of it.

Trump's people are sick of this upscaling that leaves them with less power and a greater dependency on government. They are sick of the prerogatives of in-group belonging being challenged at every step by liberals.

They are sick of what is supposedly their territory being turned into a revolving door for outsiders.

They are sick of traditions, and traditional views on everything from rights to religious holidays, being treated like decorative options in the name of bringing outsiders into the fold without compromising their views.

They are sick of the way leftists try to co-opt their complaints about wealth distribution and power in the global economy into their typical leftist complaints against corporate greed.

They are sick of accountability always being subordinate to altruism.

And above all, they are sick of the constant low-level propagandizing, how it marginalizes their perspective, how it uses pop psychology to make them out as disturbed bigots. The left can't sneeze without referring to any sense of obligation towards one's own group over other people as a form of hate or fear when it is obviously neither.

Death Throes?

I've written on structuralism before. I support the prerogative of people to separate themselves however they want, by nationality, family, business interests, race, class, religion, Miley Cyrus fandom, anything you value. Whatever you can turn into a symbolic high ideal, whatever lets you organize a social system with incentives and accountability, you can make that your thing, and when it comes to allowing you to try it out, the burden of proof should be on the skeptics if you want to stop them from trying. Better yet, make it impossible to stop them without their consent. They should all be treated like the Amish or the Seminoles, as long as the taxes are paid. This is insulted as "tribalism" in polite liberal circles.

The Trump campaign's nationalism is already a sign of bad things from where I stand as a general structuralist. The upscaling continues apace, and the idea of any authority below the national level being taken seriously as exercising real power is vanishing before our eyes.

The world is getting smaller. America was designed as a federalist system. The states once had real power, as evidenced by the electoral vote, which views states as legitimate structures representing real cultural differences. But few people think of the electoral college as a good thing now; most prefer a straight popular vote. Meanwhile, block grants have made fiscal independence for states a thing of the past, and recent state level initiatives from gay marriage to pot legalization are seen as "trends" which all states will eventually have to get on board with before federal court decisions or legislation forces them to do it. Since the Civil Rights movement and the destruction of the 10th Amendment, the trajectory has been clear: no more "state's rights".

I can tell you from personal experience that local governments are no better. I recently spoke at a city commission meeting here, and our commission is keenly interested to see what other cities in the state and beyond are doing. They feel safe following the trends, and I've heard similar sentiments coming from other cities and townships.

So, this is the time of the nation-state as the peak of all formal government legitimacy. And that's why Trump has to be a nationalist. Saying "leave it up to the states" is not a viable option anymore, let alone leave it up to the community. Federalism is dead. Nation-size is as small as you can go with real power.

And then there's family. Family used to be the ultimate in legitimate social organization: when this country was first established, the family and the individual were considered inseparable, a hierarchical order, with the householder - pretty much always a male of productive age - exercising power as protector and provider. The family was the social safety net, the first line of discipline, care, socialization, and identity, absolutely necessary for human development, from birth and childhood through old age, a wellspring of purpose, so independent it was very nearly a functional Von Neumann machine.

Not anymore. Bernie Sanders' campaign touted his family values early on to great appeal, and proved the point: today we see family as a purely emotional attachment that needs to be cared for by the government in order to remain together. They assume families are held together by love, and instead of needing each other for practical economic reasons, they are torn apart by economics. This has the happy side effect of rendering the male role in the family irrelevant, not ultimately responsible for the financial welfare or safety of the family - that's the federal government's job - but responsible for the happiness of the children and the mother, a subservient position. No one on the Sanders campaign would question the no-fault divorce or the prerogative of social services to take children away from an "unhealthy" household. The old school idea of the family as an independent, self-sustaining unit is dead as fried chicken.

So it is with all group agency. This is the real fight. People who value the prerogative to form groups that are internally accountable and truly autonomous are standing against those who don't.

There aren't as many of us as the opposition thinks. Others in the alt-right think there is, but in a populist country, everyone seems to think that others have the same thoughts they do.

I don't think Trump will win. The man is an idiot. Quite the opposite, I expect a replay of the Goldwater campaign in 1964: this coming landslide will crush the Republican party for many years. It would be hilarious if he won, or even made it close, but he won't.

The question is, what comes next? You can expect the irredeemables to be plenty pissed when they lose, but the rest of the country - or at least its media - will be overjoyed at how we didn't elect someone who basically represents a repulsive combination of stupid and evil. So those who supported him can expect something between scorn and pity. Since the media has long explained away those people as discontented workers who are getting screwed by corporations, Clinton might leverage the animosity into taxes on the rich, more support programs, and whatever boilerplate leftist economic drivel she wants to push through Congress. It might work, too.

What's certain is that the majority will not come away from this with respect for right wing ideas. Never mind that Trump's failure doesn't actually say anything about the quality of the ideas he happens to have latched on to. The man smears the movement, and while the alt-right might be in paradise right now, they will probably be even more reviled after all this is over, because they've stimulated a touch of fear.

Trump's movement never created a systematic case for what it was going for and allowed it to be seen as simple, knee-jerk reaction with no method to its madness, which invited this kind of patronizing. So when Trump loses, that might really end election-scale opposition to that order, dead almost as soon as it was born. If it wants to survive, the alt-right and the nationalists are going to have to stay away from electioneering for a while, accept its own hated minority status, and focus on types of communication that make their perspective less disgusting.

If it happens, it will be worth it. I hope it does.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


I recently spent some time visiting with my family due to an illness. It was a somber time, but it was also life with the family, and there are certain things that are quite predictable. One of the most predictable things that's come up over the last few years is binge watching HGTV with my mother.

Have you seen this channel? No? Take a look some time. It doesn't matter when, just turn it on. The same thing is always on, namely a marginally formatted show featuring houses being torn apart and turned into magazine covers.

If you want to know about what the new American status quo looks like, just watch. Get past the gloss, and this is your society, right now.

The first thing you'll notice is that everyone is the same. On House Hunters International, you find out people from different countries are just like us, but with quirky ways of doing things that can be written off as "just culture", odd preferences you adapt to in order to be polite. The correct proportion of racial minorities are featured, along with a healthy dollop of homosexuals, sometimes with quirky personalities but never anything alienating. You won't notice any differences between young and old people, because there are basically no old people. And of course, everyone has the same goals: those quirky personalities are unimportant compared to what everyone has in common, namely an earnest desire for good life experiences and affection from each other, comfort and a strong sense of "personal, individual" style from their home, and a host of other attitudes fully in line with modern consumerism.

Really, it's remarkable how conservative all this is when you think about it, so long as you understand conservative to mean status quo and not a stronger definition of conservatism.

There's a veneer of empowerment feminism and equality, but it's really very much about nesting and the old-world women's role in the home. That consumerist impulse puts self-expression within the purview of a good shopping trip. Everyone is well-polished and earnest, and there are no extremes of anything. The entire channel is desexualized: women are attractive but never seductive, any masculinity is played down and usually takes on an established alpha/beta couple dynamic, and the "plots" are usually hard-nosed practical matters of finishing jobs and making Really Important Life Decisions about what to buy, sentiment and satisfaction at the forefront of busy but low-intensity lives where everything turns out for the best.

Did I mention this is "reality TV"? Okay it's barely reality TV. The arc of every episode of every show is formatted identically, the big moments probably never veering more than 90 seconds off of every other episode. It might as well be scripted, and I'm sure much of it is scripted, right down to the "dialogue". After all, the entire channel is basically a commercial for the home improvement industry. You can't have anything disconcerting or uncomfortable going on, lest people stop paying attention to the selling or change the channel.

The result of this amorphous blob of TV programming is interesting: the shows are watchable as hell, particularly when you're tired and just want something pleasant to kill a few hours with, something which requires very little personal investment. Seriously, you can blow through 3 straight hours of this stuff, and you will have the same mild interest you started with. There's little actual drama, so it is neither satisfying to watch nor exhausting. It just exists, and occupies enough attention to calm you down and create a little curiosity as to how this house is going to turn out. It's the opposite of serious drama and even pornography.

It finally struck me that watching all this reminds me of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Hillary is, from a status quo standpoint, easily the most conservative politician in the race, a career bureaucratic player who has completely adapted to the system as it sits.

She likes family and tradition and entrepreneurialism and patriotism, but she would never compel anyone to adhere to them. Her detractors try to make her flexibility on those things into an absence of authenticity, make her out to be untrustworthy, but any sensible person can see she just doesn't care, and there's no reason to expect radicalism in any form out of her, ever.

The vision she relates, one of middle class wealth, nuclear family bound by emotion, the nonexistence of race, sexuality, culture, and gender as relevant factors in one's life, the internationalism, the establishment feminism, the unthinking adherence to consumerist values, the pleasantness and no-nonsense nuts-and-bolts competence she tries to reflect with her image and speech, all fit beautifully in the HGTV mold.

Of course it's not sexy - thank God - but because of this lack of focused anger, she's taken on more and more of Bernie Sanders' fire and brimstone message. She doesn't really mean it, of course.

Say hello to your new president, kids.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Zappos and Holocracy

Warning: this is a long post.

Since the beginning of history, man has yearned to destroy hierarchy. This instinct has been present particularly in Western society, everywhere from Christianity to the Enlightenment to the '60's. But today, even the establishment itself - barely aware that it is the establishment - has joined the anti-authoritarianism, through corporate organization techniques and positive talk which labels hierarchy "inefficient".

After decades of softening the Organization Man with feedback sessions, ping pong tables in the break room, and other symbolic gestures, we have Holacracy. This method of organization promotes itself as a new and radical way of creating workable, changeable, cohesive, and goal-oriented groups. The scheme is said to distribute authority far more than in the bureaucratic hierarchies that dominate big business today.

Now, since I have said before that hierarchy is the only way groups work, with every other attempt turning out to be somewhere between brittle and outright lunacy, this requires a special critique. We have two questions to answer. First, is the distribution of authority real, as opposed to being just for show? Second, is the new system getting positive results?

This is relatively easy, since Holacracy has been implemented at a number of companies. The one I'm going to use is Zappos, the online shoe store known for its purposefully weird internal culture and by far the biggest company to adopt Holacracy. We're talking about an organization of more than 1,200 people and a lot of exposure to the media, largely through CEO Tony Hsieh, the anti-Bundy of the shoe salesman world. Thanks to that, the strengths and weaknesses of the system are being shown in large scale before our eyes.

This won't be entirely a negative critique. The system is quite sophisticated, with plenty of good and bad to talk about. This requires both a examination of Holacracy and a look at conventional hierarchies for comparison later on. We're going to have to simplify a lot to have a sensible conversation about this on the noob level, so bear with me.

How Does Holacracy Work?

First, a disclaimer: Holacracy does not completely throw out hierarchy and it doesn't really claim to do so. There are shades of bureaucratic hierarchy and democracy at work. It claims to be an alternative system of organization that is significantly less hierarchical, more empowering to people actually doing the work than what they envision as a traditional hierarchy.

They aren't trying to banish hierarchy and management in all forms so much as banish politics and what some people call "pathological hierarchy". You can think of good management being a matter of how command is used: are the directives clear and purposeful, with a sensible focus on the benefit of the organization and space to give the people within the organization the prerogative to do their jobs? Or is the power used to satisfy emotional insecurities, pursue an agenda contrary to the institution's welfare, and overall benefit those in power over others? Holacracy seeks the former.

There are two primary metaphors you can use when considering how Holacracy actually functions, and both come from system design outside the usual bureaucratic models.

The first metaphor is a computer system. The guy who created Holacracy, Brian Robertson, is a computer programmer, and he likes to call Holacracy an organizational operating system, like Windows for institutions.

The second metaphor is that of a city with a free market economy. Holacracy is organized, but places emphasis on giving people the prerogative to respond to opportunities in different departments, to learn things outside their department, and to otherwise act as independent nodes, the same way individuals act living in a city. They have to adapt to its structure, but they don't explicitly fall under anyone's authority.

And Holacracy is structured. It's actually structured much more explicitly than pyramid hierarchies, which when working well are constantly trading off between bureaucratic rules and the judgment of those in authority. Robertson and company were smart enough to recognize the difficulty of decision-making without centralizing responsibility and power. This system knows it has to actively fight against hierarchy, and it pulls out a lot of classic tricks to give the impression of creating roundtable dialogue instead of unilateral power.

The first is to change the terms. Some of these changes are clearly just a surface name change: problems and issues become "tensions", for example. Other changes are more concrete. Instead of departments or units, Holacracy has "circles", which are broken down into sub-circles of super-circles. You can scale this up or down however you need to do it, a sub-circle creating new sub-circles and so on. This change is more of a real change: the mechanics of a circle are specifically broken down in the Holacracy constitution, and those mechanics make those structural changes easier than in most bureaucracy-heavy corporations. Some circles, like the Anchor circle which holds the board, are not negotiable, but most can be dismissed with relative ease.

One particularly big deal is the elimination of jobs as a static position, replaces by "roles". People in the company can have more than one role here, and you can apply for different ones in different circles whenever they come up, like responding to part-time job listings in your city classifieds.

It's an attempt to make a role/job less subject to command override and more like an abstract piece of property. There is an assumption that people who hold the role are supposed to do it as they see fit, autonomously, to the greatest extent feasible. This can go wrong quickly, but Zappos specifically addressed at least one serious problem in a way I really like. More on that later.

The biggest terminology change is, of course, to authority: there are no more bosses or managers. Hsieh eliminated them and offered his employees a buy-out in the biggest publicity note of this entire experiment. Does this mean there is no more leadership within those circles? Of course not: there are now a number of positions with different responsibilities that make up the leadership, most critically the "lead link". The lead link does not have the power to fire you or determine your salary, but they do have the power to take you out of a circle they run if they don't like what you've been doing. Lots of decisions are placed in the hands of the circle instead of higher echelons, so the power has been reduced... but not eliminated.

After all these terminology changes, you get to the soul of the system: meetings. And holy hell, there are a lot of fuckin' meetings! We have weekly tactical meetings, monthly governance meetings, and semiannual strategy meetings. The last typically goes over four hours. Each of these meetings is heavily structured with check-in rounds, agenda building, and updates, and everyone is given an explicit opportunity to speak. They WANT your input here, a lot. All this is documented rigorously with Holacracy's proprietary software, Glass Frog, which also serves as the internal communication system, sending out "shards"/emails to people as appropriate to their roles and circles.

These meetings are carefully constructed in the Holacracy constitution. The point is not to get approval from an authority to act, but if there is a problem/"tension", you bring it up and make a proposal, and after the proposal is deemed rational enough to get on the table by a Facilitator, then "tensions" with the proposal then go on the table, and on this goes until there are no more tensions. Proposals aren't put up to a vote or approval from an authority figure. If no one can make a logical argument against it, the proposal is carried. This is supposedly how they banish politics from the structure.

In one article, a Zappos employee complains about five hours of meetings in one day, and you get the impression from reading about the system that this isn't entirely out of the ordinary. There's an obvious logic - time organizing your effort is typically time well spent - but if you get the impression of a lot of drudgery, you're not alone. One is reminded of early ideas of freedom from the distant past, where thinkers pronounced that free men must be disciplined, multifaceted, and possessing of good character in order to maintain their state as free men. This brand of equality is hard, and lots of people haven't taken well to Holacratic management: when Hsieh announced his buyout, 14% of the company took him up on it.

That's not a damnation, but a testament to simple differentness. This is not business as usual.

The Positives

Starting with the small details first, we can see a lot of ways in which this Holacracy thing might have some merit.

First, when they finally instituted the role system company-wide, Zappos realized quickly enough that people could end up stacking on too many roles or not enough. Attention is finite, and people can slack or spread themselves too thin, so they came up with a direct system for attention budgeting, called People Points. They run from one to one hundred, with the number of points intended to represent the percentage of time a person allocates to a role.

This is bound to be very messy. It's easy to predict that when Zappos is assigning Points to roles, it won't be getting it right the first time and that some people have radically different thresholds and levels of efficiency in their work. They're gonna have to figure that out as they go. And obviously some people will not have a clean 100% Points total on their list of roles. Allocating those roles has been messy, according to reports. Some people even end up on "The Beach", with no roles assigned, the internal equivalent of unemployment. But it's worth applauding Zappos for addressing attention budgeting so directly. I expect this points system to get refined in the future, and to make a bigger difference to pay and internal authority as time goes on.

Second, the drive to change the nature of jobs and sense of voice is based on real issues and frustrations, and lots of people will probably like it. There's a certain appeal to the emphasis on autonomy, the meetings that beg input from everyone, and "flex journeyman" system that's custom-built for self-absorbed post-boomer generations.

If you've ever run a business, you may know about the "Dreamer" subspecies of employee. You may have hired them to be a clerk or manager, but forget what you hired them to do. They want to be so much more, something creative, and since their desire to do more is a desire to also "help the business", their sense of moral self-worth gets pumped up any time they work on their passion and you can expect to play hell keeping their attention on their actual job.

Say the actual job is to help customers and keep the place clean. But they say fuck that, maybe not consciously but you can see it. Maybe you notice your floors haven't been swept in three days, because Mr. Dreamer decided he needed to redesign the business' logo, knowing nothing about branding or the cost of new signage. Maybe you notice that some customers aren't being helped for nearly a full minute after walking in, but this guy has been busy doing research and has figured out the next new products you need to stock by browsing Instagram. As they engage in all this new "work", they start to feel that they deserve a little more in the way of respect and all its indicators. They will want more of your attention, they may hope for credit for something beyond their actual job, and think you're a short-sighted ass for brushing them off when they really just want to help! In extreme cases, they can convince themselves that it's "their" business, not yours.

Yeah, maybe I've had one or two of them. In most cases, I end up having to fire these people. Which sucks. I hate firing people. But they're a bitch to rehabilitate, especially since rehab means cutting down their ego.

In any case, the prerogative to change your responsibilities regularly and have people listen to you when the time comes to make decisions sounds positive for more than just the Dreamers. Some people might really have something to contribute outside a singular specialty. Now, specialization being what it is, most of them probably won't, and a lot of time will be wasted carefully explaining why their ideas suck and they should stick with jobs they know. But something good might come of it from time to time.

Third, there is a powerful urge in holacracy to "bring it to the front" which has some value.

Zappos likes to show this chart:

Lots going on, right? The underlying message is that, beneath the straightforward structure of a hierarchy is a rash of hidden relationships and power dynamics which go unseen, ostensibly because of the threats created by unequal power and the static rigidity of specialized work. There's a lot more going on than meets the eye, and thus possibly a lot of problems going unaddressed, festering under the surface. A lack of transparency, basically.

Three of the changes discussed in Holacracy - open meetings recorded on Glass Frog with communication from everyone, the distribution of power to end reprisals, and the flexible role system - exist at least in part to stop the backalley horse trading and drama that exists in those conventional hierarchies. That's particularly true when it comes to favoritism and favors, the Gold Old Boy system, where people end up with the impression that their company is two-faced and untrustworthy, or at least uninterested in them.

Holacracy makes use of formality for purposes of creating good communication and clear expectations. That's not radical. It's actually the best kind of old school. I'm not saying that this method of going about it will work, but I do agree that people need a huge dose of honesty in the way they deal with each other.

The Negatives

The first and strongest objection that I have to all this is the accountability mechanisms: there really aren't many effective ones. Super circles have few options for affecting change below except completely shutting down a sub-circle from above or claiming the Constitution was misinterpreted. Money and resources are never mentioned, nor is disciplinary action, so evidently their use is just decided by the same tension/proposal process every other topic gets while in a meeting. This is absurd given how fundamentally political budgeting is and how hesitant most people are to punish a co-workers.

I've already posted this link, but it deserves to get another look. Notice that the People Pool and Comp circle, where employees have to make their case to get a raise, is run by Hseih himself. No wonder: that's an area where limitations imposed by the executive level are simply required, and that's where the sharpest incentive power lies. Notice it does not lie in the Lead Link or the circle's wheelhouse at all.

It's going to be the same in other avenues. You've officially disempowered the people within a group who can push, demand more, and set standards, trading their authority in for a pseudo-consensus model which is exacting in process but relies on acceptance of proposals by elected role-fillers whose priorities may not be in line with the big picture of the company. You can assume good faith, but still, the average Joes aren't going to raise the expectations on themselves. Either that authority will have to be made explicit again, or the excuses will start piling up, the standards will drop, and you can expect little to get done. Sure enough, the reporting in that article says that's precisely what's happening.

No proclamations have been made, but accountability may be one of those concepts the Zappos people aren't crazy about. Maybe they consider it a pseudonym for "authoritarian assholery". If that's the case, there's a problem, because the strongest accountability mechanism ever created is money, and Zappos still needs to make money to function.

Second, the push for openness is good in theory, toothless and arguably impossible in practice, and the result will certainly be under-the-table power playing, just like in any hierarchy. None of the measures built into the system to stop it can actually do it.

The most important aspect of this new openness is supposed to be the leveling that ends reprisals. So have the power inequalities ended?

Please. The Lead Link, despite the limitations, still has some power, including judgment calls in between meetings, assigning people to roles, and authority over working metrics, plus they can't be removed by the circle itself, only by the super-circle AKA higher level management. They have few carrots and few sticks, but they are supposed to be the motivators and will be expected to keep the circle's attention, and that's not always in their favor. If the super-circle looks on them without consistent good faith in the face of resistance, that's going to be a tough job.

More compelling is the role of Facilitator, who manages the meetings. He's elected, and you can't even get something on the table without him. This isn't a bad checks and balances effort, but the Facilitator is acting as the Judicial branch and has an awful lot of power considering they have nothing to do with the institution's big picture direction.

There are mentions in that article above about how someone - I'd venture to guess a few people - are afraid of reprisals from their lead link if they spoke up about something in meetings. This isn't always a bad thing, but given that lead links are less powerful than management, it's a no-brainer that the reprisals won't come from anything that gets recorded in Glass Frog. The leverage they do have is the leverage that gets exercised quietly. Meanwhile, those who can get an enthusiastic Facilitator to like them will have a nice time of it, while those who don't will feel burned. It's a process that's guaranteed to produce a few show trials.

More open? I call bullshit. This is top down in everything but name. The Holacracy staff can say whatever they want, but I see two options: either there was an effort to take the inequalities necessary to make an institution run and purposefully bury them in the language, or it was unintentional, a system designed by computer programmers who want to see people as without ego, reserving that damning egoistic stereotype for the bosses. Either way, this needs a lot of work to keep the formal expression in the meetings in line with the underlying reality.

There are always ways to leverage power, explicitly or implicitly, and Zappos can and will see a lot of implicit hierarchies form within parts of the company. You can say that implicit expectations hold no weight, as the Constitution does, but there's no way to avoid it. It's happened already or it will happen soon.

And just as an aside, I don't think a lack of accountability makes for more honest feedback anyway. It might make for more impulsive feedback, but honesty needs to be both well considered and protected to be worth anything, meaning more authority and accountability might help more than hurt.

Third, I find this statement in the Constitution to be strange:
As a Partner assigned to a Role, you have the authority to execute any Next Actions you reasonably believe are useful for enacting your Role’s Purpose or Accountabilities. However, you cannot exert control or cause a material impact within a Domain owned by another Role or another sovereign entity, unless you have their permission.
In other words, you can do what you need to do, so long as you don't interfere with anyone else doing what they need to do. Sounds good, as it's the Holacratic equivalent of the non-aggression principle. Since roles are built along the lines of personal property, you can do anything with it, so long as it causes no problems for others. So... has personal property and the NAP ended conflict among people in the world outside Zappos? No? Then why the hell would anyone expect it to work inside Zappos?

Everything you do affects other people in the organization. Every resource used is scarce, so others will be vying for it, which is why budgeting is always political. Every domain overlaps with others unless you spend huge amounts of time hacking out the specific what-ifs that drive people in the world of law insane. To avoid that, there needs to be a lot of good faith on the part of everyone involved, which defeats the point. Any system works when there's good faith.

The Constitution is filled with the opposite of legalese: it's a brief document using language that can be played in a lot of ways. For example, during the meetings, you can propose anything you want, so long as it "better expresses" a purpose or accountability of one of your roles. Some people are better at this than others: I could write a twenty page thesis on how increasing the stock of Bavarian Creme donuts in the breakroom better expresses any role imaginable. Morale and such, you know? The elected Facilitator makes the call as to what constitutes a "reasonable" proposal, and a reasonable objection to the proposal. If you're good at debate, you can make anything sound reasonable, or unreasonable. If you can argue others into submission, you're going to get what you want.

This isn't damning in and of itself. Organizational methodology cannot make up for a lack of respect within the group, while a group that gives a shit will find a way to get things done regardless of procedural efficiency or lack thereof. If you assume good faith, Holacracy works fine... and so does hierarchy.

Finally, I think the entire concept is directed against something that its creators don't understand, namely the relationships between hierarchy, bureaucracy, and efficiency.

A lot of what people are irritated with in their companies is not hierarchy, but the bureaucratic rules intended to limit hierarchy, created because Western civilization already distrusts authority. This obviously includes the rules for creating and destroying departments, the rules for temporarily transferring from one department to another, rules demanding approval for an action by multiple levels of the hierarchy, etcetera.

Look at the Holacracy literature, and it's almost as if they assume these rules are created arbitrarily by management to benefit management, and that's ridiculous. Bureaucratism and heavy rule structuring is typically the response to accusations of bad or unfair management. Rules work against arbitrariness: the boss can't fire you without performance reviews or recorded disciplinary notices that establish a process, which is why departmental transfers are usually hard; killing off departments is difficult because the people in them would probably be fired if their job is no longer there; departmental autonomy is limited by oversight to prevent the creation of cliquish fiefdoms that don't favor new people or people who take a while to fit in; and on and on.

Bureaucracy exists to protect people from destructive or upsetting change brought on by hierarchy. Change is hard. It requires re-adapting to the expectations of your social environment. Throughout most of economic history, people have wanted stability, understanding that they can't just have what they want whenever they want it. Stability means consistency people can adapt to, and rules have given that stability to them.

We tend to think of management as "management" and not "authority" in the modern economic sphere. Management lives on procedure and doesn't "rule" by fiat, nor do they take change lightly. Lots of people don't understand all the rules, but lots of people don't want to see things from management's point of view.

Even in the most mundane examples - the static element of having just one job - the status quo exists because it does what the roles are doing in Holacracy: it creates clear responsibilities. The consistency of having a job and one job title for what is expected of you should be obvious enough; it makes it more difficult for your supervisor to get you in trouble if you're responsible for doing quality control on widgets and the widgets are coming out top-notch.

Even the rules, implied and otherwise, which empower management are not usually evidence of corruption or necessarily a bad idea. That whole Good Old Boy system? Management promotes people they can rely on, or who fit into a stereotype of such people, with certain upbringing and character and work ethic. You think this doesn't have real value? If you had responsibilities, wouldn't you want people you knew handling the most critical parts of the work?

This obtuseness reminds me of the controversy over credentialism, and how it's affected the world of higher education: formal qualifications became the standard because hiring people based on degree and GPA was safer for modern businesses afraid of accusation of discriminatory hiring. Now, no one seems to remember that broadly accessible college education was supposed to level the playing field. It was another attempt to kill the Good Old Boy system. Everyone is too upset about how much college costs and how unfair THAT is.

The real change here is that good faith becomes more necessary at the top than at the bottom, which is complete nonsense. The people in higher positions in a hierarchy are usually the ones with more time in and a proven track record of good performance. One would assume that, in Holacracy, those in Lead Link positions and other particularly valued roles would be similar. But now they have to hope for the best from those beneath them, instead of the other way around. This is flatly irrational, unless you've been infected with a cultural attitude that assumes the worst from those who hold any formal title resembling "authority".

How Does a Traditional Hierarchy Work?

Here's the real thing that bothers me about Holacracy: it's good functioning is entirely predicated on good faith, much like any other organizational system, which is fine. But if you assume good faith, then there is precisely nothing wrong with the traditional hierarchy.

The difference is that, in a hierarchy, there is a very strong attachment between power and accountability that must be present: the supervisors evaluate but are also being evaluated. They are held responsible for the performance of their groups by higher echelons of the hierarchy, just as the people at the bottom are evaluated. The tradeoff comes in giving those supervisors authority over the group; it would be stupid to slam someone for a problem they had no control over.

There are at least three things a supervisor in a hierarchy needs to do:
  1. Act as a communication node between the group and the conditions that need to be addressed, be that environmental demands (market or physical) or demands from a higher hierarchical level.
  2. Resolve conflicts, including miscommunication and coordination issues.
  3. Judge the quality of the work and compel the person tasked with the work to change it if necessary, which means they must hold the prerogative to create incentives, to regulate how the work is done.
Just from this bland and limited set of duties, it is very clear that those in supervisory positions can't help but to wield a disproportionate amount of power. 

Supervisors are the leadership - I've called them the keystone species - and leadership doesn't just fill a functional role but, on a deep level, defines the identity and values of the institution itself. Those "beneath" them often end up defining the meaning of their lives, their personal identity, through the perspective the leadership creates. From that functional necessity comes power.

If you want a reactive, fast, efficient organization, the easiest way to get it is not to disempower the hierarchy but precisely the opposite. Empower the authority more. A hierarchy untrammeled by that red tape is not only efficient in the narrow sense but also outrageously flexible, assuming that the leadership can make changes as necessary, not only within departments but to the overall scheme of the institution. When good faith is there, this works incredibly well from the institutional perspective.

If you were told to create a business organization for maximum efficiency and lived in a society that had never heard of a pyramid hierarchy, then you developed it and got people to accept it, you would be considered a genius. The only controversy would be whether or not that efficiency was worth the rapid change, the risk, the acceptable degree of delegation, the dependence of the group's future on a handful of your best people, and occasional bouts of failure that are inevitable, even if they typically do very well. All this has to do with maintaining trust.

In a conventional hierarchy, a good idea can be shot up the chain, heard, and implemented almost immediately, without having to table it until the next meeting. Communication can be outrageously efficient in a conventional hierarchy if people trust each other. If ideas are not implemented, it's often because the idea is not really very good; we do have trouble being honest about this, but it's usually in order to prevent someone from feeling offended in the short run. Management should be tactfully honest for the sake of the long run, and some are, but it's very difficult in an emotionally sensitive culture.

I mostly put all this down because Holacracy's supporters seem to have a very narrow view of what constitutes a hierarchy, and they promote some aspects of their system by comparing them to what might be common in modern corporations but not what is elemental to hierarchies in general. For example, Holacracy touts the high level of autonomy given to people in their roles, with explicit responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution, but this is perfectly possible in a conventional hierarchy as well. It's just a question of how much the top levels delegate authority downward, and when they take autonomy away from their people, there's usually a reason. It might look like pathological hierarchy is everywhere, but a moment of genuine consideration makes this absurd. Even military hierarchies I'm involved with don't like micromanaging and only end up doing it because people learn very slowly and shirk when no one's looking. Who are these people hanging out with?

They've concocted a strawman out of bad management stereotypes. I won't say it's false advertising, and I'm sure they believe in it, but this is not a well considered view of institutions at work. 

The Ideology of Zappos

If you really want to understand what Zappos is trying to do, you should start with understanding its values, directions, goals that were in mind when it was created. Is there a teleology to Zappos' project? The answer is yes, and it's embodied by the concept of "Teal".

The concept of Teal comes from a progressive way of looking at human organizational systems and the characteristics of the people in them, created by corporate consultant Frederic Laloux. Each stage in the development of organizations is color-coded and joined with a social attitude: Red/reactive is hunter-gatherer bands, Amber/conformist is ritualistic direct hierarchies like the Catholic church, and Orange/achievement is modern numbers-driven bureaucracies like Coca-Cola. Green comes next, defined as more pluralistic and self-conscious organizations like Ben and Jerry's and the pre-holacracy Zappos itself. These companies are big on activism, talk about themselves as families, and refer constantly to a transformative sense of purpose that makes them what they are, obviously wanting to discuss that more than their daily reality of needing to make a profit to survive.

Finally we have Teal, which is rather difficult to explain without merely discussing the qualities of the people involved, because its organization is so fuzzy. Suffice it to say, the company becomes a vehicle towards self-actualization of the individual within it, and at the same time, that leap is predicated on a distancing from the self. Just a touch of Western spiritual individualism here.

To put it another way, progressive ideology has always viewed the hierarchical nature of society as a deep problem, a flaw that needs to be corrected to attain the ultimate goal of individual freedom. Teal is the realization of this, where anything that resembles a hierarchy has simply ceased to direct people and instead "supports" them with resources and guidance as needed, assuming their deepest inner motives to be aligned with the inner needs of everyone else by nature.

But since this ideal is qualitatively progressive, it is not in line with a lot of academic thought on social organization. I wrote the blog on structuralism a while back, and this type of thinking holds a few similarities to orthogenesis, the developmental theory that was trashed by Franz Boas when he established the field of anthropology over a century ago. It's a form of cultural evolutionary thinking that's directly related to the belief in Western society being objectively superior to other "primitive" forms of social organization.

I have to throw this in at the end, and I know it might seem really childish, but I've studied both this and the history and ideology of communism, and you can learn a lot with a comparison.

An organization without a ranking structure is bound to be exploited: look at Stalin in the USSR prior to his rise. He was not well liked by other members of Lenin's inner circle, and was given the job of "general secretary" because it did not make major policy decisions. The Bolsheviks did not think about how power actually worked in their organizational structure, only about the prestige of the decisions they made.

The decisions the lowly general secretary made were to assign Bolshevik leaders to regional groups and other functionary posts at the level below theirs. After Lenin died, the rest of the inner circle were horrified to find that Stalin had filled those posts with people loyal to him and could make an effective power play to run the country. He had most of them killed. They were communists and didn't want an explicit hierarchy, so the implicit hierarchy that formed behind their backs eventually bit them in the ass.

Later on, the position of General Secretary was held by Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev. It turned out to be the de facto highest post in the USSR, the role that gave the influence to change everything.

This isn't to knock them for not having checks and balances. Checks and balances can grind an organization to a halt if the agents in their various positions don't have the same values. If you doubt this, look at Congress. But that's the tradeoff, equality and deadlock versus hierarchy and efficiency.

Ideologically, try comparing the vision of Teal and the role of the Lead Link to Marx' vision as outlined by Bertell Ollman, with people occupying different positions at different times according to their preferences, without the need for work discipline or contracts enforced. In this "scientific" universe, laziness gets written off as an imposed condition, stemming from the association between work and coercive disempowerment. Teal and communism both relieve that association by turning work into a creative outlet, leadership more akin to a conductor leading an enthusiastic orchestra than a commanding taskmaster. At the core, this is all driven by a sense of revealed unity that makes the needs of others as important to everyone as their own needs, their best efforts rewarded by the gratification of being part of the solution to their deprivation.

Anyway, I really don't mean this as a slam. Zappos is still a good company and Hseih is obviously more sensible than sheer opportunists like Dan Price, that absurd piece of work who announced a $70,000 minimum wage to build his public persona and keep his brother from getting a claim on company profits.

And it should also be clear that holacracy and Teal are not the same, nor do they have much to do with each other institutionally. Teal organizations are not necessarily holacracies, or vice versa. It's just that Hsieh decided to operate on the assumption that they were natural complements, which makes sense enough. The two share a lot ideologically, both relying on an assumption of good intentions and innocence from those at the bottom of the hierarchy, and egomaniacal bad management at the top, and that aligns directly with the West's perpetual hatred of the powerful. There is no truly rational reason to believe these assumptions are right.

We will never get anywhere designing better human systems if we don't first accept the fact that inequality is a necessity, not a moral failure.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Good and the Free

The contrast attains its maximum when, in accordance with the logical consequences of slave-morality, a shade of depreciation - it may be slight and well-intentioned - at last attaches itself to the good man of this morality; because, according to the servile mode of thought, the good man must in any case be the safe man: he is good-natured, easily deceived, maybe a little stupid, un bonhomme. Everywhere that slave-morality gains ascendancy, language shows a tendency to approximate the significations of the words "good" and "stupid".                                     -Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, A 260
I'm trying something different. Having asked about a million times what makes Americans what they are and how this has come about from the Western intellectual tradition, my usual method of deconstructing American ideas just isn't cutting it anymore. It works poorly. We don't just explicitly say who we are, what we expect, what we value, what we like, or what defines us as a culture. We show it, very obviously, but we don't clearly define it. It's like jazz music: the musicians never play the exact melody, but on an intuitive level, anyone can hear that melody crystal clear.

So in an effort to make what I see more clear, I'm not going to deconstruct so much as I'm going to talk about stereotypes of what we like, what our ideals are for what we should be. Stereotypes are useful here because it's easier to imagine a reaction to common descriptive traits than it is to painstakingly build an exacting cultural terminology. You can muddle this up easily by getting into specifics, but the entire point of the exercise is to avoid that. Think about what these stereotypes generally look like when you see them in action.

Let's start by going back to innocence. The post is reasonably good but incomplete, because the stereotype of innocence is incredibly compelling in this culture and because we have a lot of current issues which revolve around innocence as part of a belief system without saying anything about it directly. It's in our ironic detachment, in our mythos and entertainment, and in our political attitudes towards everything from guns to public housing.

In the interests of simplicity, I've boiled the stereotype of innocence down to three characteristics that are widely demonstrated by people who are considered innocent. They are:

  • Harmlessness. An innocent person isn't just someone who chooses not to harm other living things, but someone who finds the idea of harming other living things to be so abhorrent that they will not seriously consider doing it even when their own welfare is at stake. Harm also includes NOT helping when you see someone else in trouble and you have the ability to help, of course. Expect a dichotomy to develop between thinking strategically about your interactions with others and empathizing with others. This is the most important element of innocence to most people.
  • Openness. Those who are innocent are also those who do not divide themselves into groups against other people, who look at everyone with fresh eyes, who believe the best about people, trusting everyone, who welcome all with the expectation that kindness delivered will be appreciated and reciprocated. This isn't quite egalitarianism, as anyone can have special relationships, but it is a clear rejection of group-based preferences and conflict. 
  • Joyfulness. An innocent enjoys life. We are here to make life better for each other, through our interactions, our love, our desire to empathetically share the positive in our lives with others. There may be pain, but there is also the hope for a very short memory, a forgiveness which keeps the past from screwing up our good time in the moment.

We're looking at more than a simple categorical set here. There's an essence to innocence, a wide-eyed wonder that, when we see it, encapsulates a lot of dreams we have for ourselves and our future. Innocence is essentially the prerequisite of goodness. Even if circumstances and the need for self-preservation don't allow you to be innocence in practice, we all want to see ourselves as innocent by intention. In practice, it's naivete, but in theory, the lack of corruption can even make truth more accessible.

You can see this innocence expressed in popular, positive stereotypes about children. Children supposedly like everyone they meet, at least to begin with. Children are of course not dangerous, and the smaller the better. And children do not walk around the world viewing everyone with suspicion just because they've felt a little pain. They are enjoying themselves, absorbing everything but not casting judgments which will set their character, and they don't lash out until the terrible teens. Such positive stereotypes of innocence are also found in household pets and the severely mentally handicapped.

Children are, supposedly, good until an adult makes them bad through some sort of abuse. That abuse, and the logical memory of harm leading to caution results in what is broadly seen by some people as a "loss of innocence". Which Westerners consider a tragedy. The more willing to forgive and forget and maintain an open, universal trust in others, the longer innocence is maintained.


Continuing the theme of the Libertarian/Authoritarian post, freedom holds a certain stereotype in popular culture as well. You've heard of a "free spirit", right? Describe one, right now. What does that person look like?

Libertarians and some conservatives love freedom as a political ideal, but their understanding of freedom is not behavioral or cultural, but more legal. In their eyes, freedom is a state of sovereignty: it really just means that the law is, on a structural level, explicitly individualist. Libertarians and conservatives not only accept personal responsibility in the resulting social equation, but encourage and appreciate it, so while they support freedom, it is a different freedom than what many people interpret when that word is used.

Modern liberals, socialists, left-libertarians and many others are more aligned with the "free spirit" idea. It's a set of traits which constitute a person unhindered by burden and unblemished by sin.

Here are some traits that seem to fall into the stereotype of freedom:

  • Over-sharing, or constant self-expression. A free people is a conversational people. When we don't talk, we're considered vaguely suspicious or it may be assumed that we've seen abuse, or simply an insecurity created by some fear or boundary. We don't like loners. But we do like to see others confiding in us, presenting an artistic side that reveals themselves. More communication is almost defined as more indicative of liberation and choice.
  • Lack of seriousness. When the chips are down, we know we need to get serious, but we'd rather not. Seriousness shows weight, which is difficult to discern from guilt, or a feeling of responsibility that is tied to unwelcome perceptions of power. This is how a free people goes about its day to day, with joy.
  • Curiosity and bias towards change. Learn about everything, experience everything, experiment to your heart's content. Also seen in our exuberant irreverence for the old. Everyone makes their mark, or so we hope. For that mark to be made, we must also allow for whatever was in place before to wither. Can we really be free if we are pushed into doing things the same way as those before us? Of course not. As Jonathan Haidt said, change is fun and exciting, particularly if you don't like the status quo.
  • Love of diversity. Self-explanatory and closely related to the change/curiosity bias. We are simply obsessed with having the greatest possible variety of experiences to choose from. People who are free buck trends and other pressures whenever they choose and appreciate when others do so as well. Might apply to cultural diversity, but the diversity element is subject to personal choice, so anything requiring commitment or exclusivity gets no love.
  • Generosity and compassion. Related to the belief that all people are born with inalienable dignity. Applies particularly when felt for those who are victimized, which a free people will not tolerate. This is compassion as instinct, compassion as the accepted normal reaction from people operating within the boundaries of good mental health. It's not forced or pressured by any outside source, but an inborn human instinct which needs minimal cultivation. We care about each other. We're born caring about each other, and believe that not caring is the result of pressures from prejudices or employers or some other imposed barrier.

Just as children symbolize innocence, so they also symbolize freedom. Recent generations have shown a desire to return to childhood whenever possible, or not grow up at all. And why wouldn't they? In a culture that tries to psychoanalyze children and give them space instead of using discipline to prepare them for adulthood, being a child is a carefree pleasure cruise.

It's pretty obvious that there's a lot of overlap here. For Western people, innocence and freedom go hand in hand. There is a perpetual idea which, with some exceptions, usually goes without being articulated, but is obvious anyway:

To be good is to be free.

It makes a certain sense. Openly bad people cannot be free, lest they make each other miserable. Bad people under discipline of social authority and order may not kill each other, but they will not consider themselves free as they are heavily restrained from their core intentions. Only good people can be free, and similarly, only a free people can really be considered good.

You can look at this statement two ways. First, you can see it as the practical security you get from accepting and adapting to your society's behavioral standards, resulting in a harmonious meeting of expectations and actions. But that's a perspective of strategic self-interest, or a cynical one (there's no difference in the West). Instead, you want to see this as someone who is fully vested in the Western experience sees it: you are supposed to be a good person, your most authentic self is a good person, and once the petty bickering is ended and antagonisms cease to exist, the guilt we experience from having to fight others for our existence will go with it. On a spiritual level, that's when we will be truly free.

You can smell the religion.

In fact, without theology, this is nonsensical garbage.

When I was younger, I believed that Christian beliefs were preached to make people more amenable to authority. Historically, this is absurd - Christianity is far too young for that, large scale complex society having existed for thousands of years before its rise and was predicated on the very different ideals of honor society. But the basic concept of trusting, easily led sheep continues to get a lot of lip service. On the surface, they're the perfect subjects. Deeper down, not so much: they're extremely anti-authoritarian, following only God or, on a more sophisticated level, a vision of natural order inseparable from the idea of God.

You will note that these are ideals, not necessarily realities. Ugly realities of living in a society preoccupied with freedom and innocence - shallow Epicurian pleasure-seeking, the plunge to the lowest common denominator, an outrageous sense of self-worth and entitlement, a confused perspective on where to place the boundaries of blame - need not come up in this particular conversation, because what we like is every bit as telling as what we are like.

Notice also that the ideals here are not organized into any specific relationships, a la the openness trait. They are how everyone is supposed to think of, and treat, anyone. Straight from Kant's categorical imperative, ideals like these are built on defining characteristics of good people, behaviors which are applied to every facet of who we are and which come to the fore with everyone, not just our own people, never isolated to just specific relationships or loyalties. To be true, they must be universal.

Openness has been granted a special status, providing the basis for nondiscrimination as a social ideal. The "open society" is the only good society, all others being considered dangerous, even if being open and vulnerable is nakedly irrational in a strategic sense. Notice that Donald Trump's presidential campaign is being heavily demonized. And why is that? Because he's a nationalist and advocates nationalist policy: American exceptionalism, tightened borders, competition with other nations, cultural identity. Modern Americans aren't supposed to be that way. They're supposed to be universalist, individualist, willing to see people from other nations as neighbors just as they see their actual next-door neighbors.

But of course, other peoples do not deify innocence the way we do, leading to some obvious friction between our hopes and our reality. Multiculturalism was an attempt to look at other peoples with sympathy, but we still have our own perspective and, in the name of "common humanity", assumed they looked at things as we looked at things, hating authority figures and loving the vulnerable for their accessibility.

So instead of promoting the idea that other cultures hold as much validity as our own, all this really does is reinforce the idea that our culture is uniquely right in theory if not practice, while damning other cultures which impose the opposite discipline and conflict with our social goal of painless liberation. It feeds into stronger prejudice.

It's important to understand this perspective if you want to understand your society. Both sides of the political coin have it, and with blurred lines between their visions. For some, taking on the burdens of a conflict-ridden world hostile to innocence is a heroic act, a sacrifice for others made from love. You can see this attitude in comic book movies, where incredibly strong heroes agonize over the blood on their hands all the time. The appetite for such heroes comes from a conservative outlook, hoping for a leader and savior we can trust with power.

But there is also the more literal interpretation of innocence which reviles power, believes it is fundamentally corrupting to innocence, and it's the divisions and willingness to compete and harm and looking at the world egoistically sitting at the core of all problems. This mindset will be one for all, all for one, go for broke... and paradoxically leads to an even more strident and extreme hatred of status quo. Revolutionary crackpots think this way. And all through Western society, we're never too far from that. It's in our ideological DNA.

I would suggest you fight it, and to see struggle and division and power and risk and inequality as what they are: the fundamental drivers of a dynamic existence, critical to a meaningful life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fact, Value, and Power

This—is now MY way,—where is yours?' Thus did I answer those who asked me 'the way'. For THE way—it doth not exist!                                  -Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, CH. 55

David Hume's fact/value problem has been kicking my ass lately.

I don't mean I've been having serious problems, just that it's popped up to surprise me a couple of times and reminds me of how disruptive it is in Western debates, despite its apparent clarity. This is ironic, because one of the few articles I've removed from this blog revolved around the fact/value problem and the myth of cultural neutrality. Once again, we're back to it.


First of all, my shop has a low level conflict that occasionally livens things up when there's not much going on. I have two employees with radically different taste in music, one a hip hop guy and the other an old school punk rocker. They fight over who's controlling the shop music constantly, and sometimes the discussions get a little... heated.

Neither of these guys are stupid or poorly versed in other kinds of music. The punk guy has played in a band and the rap guy has recorded albums with a group. They're dedicated.

It's not a serious problem. In fact, it's kind of fun. They like each other well enough and both are good employees, so this doesn't disrupt business very much. It's the kind of shop where one of us asked a regular the other day if he liked making women squirt, and he said yes, because "it's just like seeing Niagara Falls for the first time". We frequently have a beer or three while we clean up at the end of the day. We mess with noobs and talk to regulars as friends, because they are friends. The shop was once the subject of negotiations during a divorce, and the two parties had to figure up how to split days they could come in. It's that kind of place. The musical strife is just one of those things that never goes away, like a weird rash.

The fact/value problem steps in when the arguments go from being a simple clash of personal taste to an attempt to quantify what makes music good. Both parties have, at some point, said something to the effect of "that music sucks", phrased to indicate that the other kind of music is objectively bad. It's one thing to say you have different taste. It's another to say that this other person has bad taste, indefensible taste.

Ask the punk guy if he sees it as his music being better, and he'll admit that it's just different, but he's also the more aggressive about wanting his music playing while he's at the shop. The rap guy is more likely to see his musical taste as impossible to argue with. He thinks the same thing about his taste in food and the sophistication of his palate, and those tastes are often just not as broadly appealing as he thinks they are.

Because of the genres we're talking about, it's particularly difficult, because both are extremely simple styles meant to be the focal point of a subculture. People who like neither could conceivably have the same gripes: excessive aggression, a lack of technical talent, a reliance on 4/4 time signature, and lyrics meant to offend outsiders.

But none of that means that either style is bad. They are descriptive terms. Simple isn't bad, 4/4 time isn't bad, offensive lyrics aren't bad assuming you aren't the pussy being offended. Maybe you can come up with scientific data showing that either style stimulates less cognitive activity than classical music, or that prolonged exposure resulted in a more aggression. So what? Some people like aggression, even believe in a need for aggression. Beer lovers frequently like hoppy beers despite the fact that we are programmed by genetics to dislike bitter tastes and prefer sweet flavors. Tastes are adaptable, and beer lovers love beer.


Second, I've been in a long argument with libertarians on a discussion thread... over arguments themselves. These guys are praxeology people, who should be theoretically near to my own heart given the title of this blog, but who are turning out to be full of shit.

The topic was Hoppe's a priori of argumentation, which I think is absurd but which these certain types of libertarians believe has surmounted the fact/value problem. The point is that, essentially, if you argue, you must believe private property is objectively valid. Check out this three-stage "proof":

A: arguments are all propositional justifications, meaning that you're making a case for being able to believe what you believe.
B: to make an argument requires use of your body, which you control due to "homesteading" or first use, which is the grounding principle of possession.
C: you can't deviate from homesteading and remain logically coherent, so private property is thus included.

So, since your control over your own body is an example of first-use prerogatives and you exemplify this every time you open your mouth to argue, you must also extend that first-use principle to control over that which is outside your body and accept the legitimacy of such property. All these ideas are supposedly so obvious that they require no further justification to be considered true, AKA they're a priori true. That is, true on the same level that math is true.

Similar arguments are made in the establishment of equal application of these rights and the non-aggression principle. They rely mostly on a defined separation between aggression and "coercion", which praxeological libertarians will allow when person and property aren't directly assaulted without provocation.

It's an attractive idea, particularly if you're a libertarian. I'm tempted to cut some slack, because they have the problematic task of trying to de-legitimize aggression as they know it while legitimizing self-interest and competition. Of course they want to draw bright lines in the sand at this point.

That said, you've got to be fucking kidding me. Disregard that arguments are historically a run-up to violence instead of a denial of it, disregard the fact that an organism's control of their body has always required defense within an environment of violence, and you still have to make the leap from believing that biochemical control is directly comparable to control of property via sociopolitical norms. No, guys, it isn't. You can smell post-hoc rationalization seeping through the words.

What does this crap have to do with the fact/value problem? Everything. Critically, this type of libertarian thinks such reasoning is not moral reasoning. Hoppe called them "performative contradictions": to them, morality is just a taste, like music, but a performative contradiction means that your actions insinuate two different and opposing logical beliefs. In Western parlance, this is the difference between morals and rights.

These guys really want this difference to be taken seriously. And there is definitely a difference between formal recognition of authority over something and the demand to use that authority benevolently. This is somewhat intuitive in America, where we put stock in the idea of freedom and where both liberals and libertarians accuse each other of "legislating morality". One is a structural idea, the other a strategy on how to use that structural authority; you can see how they try to slide in the notion that the structural idea is descriptive instead of normative.

But really, is there a difference? You can only define ideas like property and structure by what people are expected to do in response to them. It's still an idea, an abstraction, no existence outside your head, no relevance except what it convinces you to do. They are a form of behavioral control and inseparable from subjective legitimacy.

There is no such thing as an "inalienable right" and I mentally roll my eyes when this outlook is actually spoken with conviction. How hard is this? When you assert that private property and non-aggression are rights, then you're asserting that those who attempt to violate those things in their self-interest are wrong and you're taking a moral, or at least a values-based, side in a conflict. There's either a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact/value problem here, or a fundamental misunderstanding of morality.

I've already made my case for why I like and prefer libertarianism. Even though the rights behind it would be better understood as allocation of responsibilities, it's a much more organic system than anything else we've come up with. But there's also a reason most people aren't libertarian. Most people have a completely different understanding of what constitutes aggression than the rigid, ham-fisted definition that the libertarians lean on every time they make an argument; the more popular moral definition takes intentions or expectations into account. And while people might give lip service to freedom, they usually don't see a difference between one form of aggression and another when the competition of the system kicks their ass and they want precious justice.


And finally, third: This article from the Washington Post might tell you something about the bigger problem. You want to be neutral to all parties when you run something like Facebook, which is a communications infrastructure built on open consumerism across lots of different cultures and thus demanding universality. But neutrality doesn't exist, and pretending it does ultimately makes the conflicts worse.

This matters. Facebook is a massively influential attention infrastructure, and claiming the prerogative to remove stuff they define as offensive means a greatly reduced visibility for the perspective that defends such stuff, and thus greatly reduced acceptance of it as valid. Hate on Facebook all you want, but lots of people actually get their news through their feed, and they are perfectly willing to see neutrality as the format which reinforces their worldview.

And that's what Facebook - a totally Western institution - is doing. Western people have a way of seeing their values - open expression, benevolence, individual choice, inclusion without obligation - as correct and stripped down to the essentials of social order, where other cultures are seen as lots of fluff and tradition, mostly useful for reinforcing a common identity, and which might live or die as preferences change. You could even say that Western people see their norms as objective, while they see other cultures' norms as subjective.

Facebook already says that neutrality doesn't exist in so many words. Their response to the controversy says that they "cut the balance" between maintaining free communication and maintaining a safe and pleasant experience. This directly insinuates compromise, which would be unnecessary if neutrality were a real option.

The principles of Silicon Valley that are questioned in the article wouldn't sound like subjective opinions to a lot of Americans, and the bullfighting example is one reason why. Every American, even if they hunt or love a good steak, at least know why someone would find the sport offensive. Every American knows why some people find the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia to be unjust, and would want it to be stopped. Every American knows why Facebook would object to free speech concerns in China. Americans don't quite believe in American rights; they believe in human rights, even animal rights. They might admit that the establishment of individual rights was a cultural product of the West and thus Facebook's actions are cultural imperialism in theory. But there are precious few who are willing to accept the meaning of their own diagnosis.

There are lots of other cultures that know there are winners and losers in every established norm. They might not state it in reference to the fact/value problem, because that establishment has its own Western roots with its own underlying baggage and motivations. But those other cultures get it, especially when the legitimacy of their own culture is challenged.


When you say that something is subjective, you insinuate - correctly - that it's an opinion and that refusing to believe it is real does not necessarily mean that you will have the same problems that you would have if you refused to believe that a bullet fired at you is real. This statement fundamentally devalues abstractions, and psychologically, it should be no surprise that people don't value abstractions which aren't helping them.

But all societies, at the core, are predicated on these subjective abstractions.

There is a desire to find a link, a bridge from the subjective to the objective. Most have tried to find it in a universal value. For libertarians, order and personhood are the bridge, and the sloppiness of their application from a moral standpoint is just the breaks of life. For liberals and socialists, universal welfare and love are the bridge, however sloppy their application for concepts like sovereignty and merit. But none of these work well. None are objective and thus none are beyond questioning and rebellion. For simple categorical purposes, we're missing a term that describes the ability to bring the subjective into the objective, from mind into matter.

Shift away from heavily ingrained Western principle, and that term becomes obvious: power. Power is by definition the bridge between the subjective and the objective.

This statement makes people recoil. We want to believe that power games are vulgar and what we're really after - enlightenment - brings us to something more than the stereotypical understanding of more power, a universal legitimacy with a sense of spiritual peace. But this is not a true understanding of power, and if you lose the stereotypes, a broadened understanding makes sense of a lot of things.

Namely, everything you want is power. Everything you do that can, in any way, affect life outside of yourself is a form of power. Your words can have power. You appearance can have power. Your purchasing decisions can have power. Power has a radically wide spectrum: we can be almost completely irrelevant our entire lives, or we can influence millions, even billions.

Power and formal authority have a close, but not exclusive, relationship.

At my place of business, the conflict over the music has a resolving element, and that resolving element is authority. I own the business, so ultimately, I decide what's allowed there. Is my ownership an abstraction? Yes, of course it is. But ownership is an abstraction so fundamental to Western society that those who live within its protection are obligated to respect it by law. The West is built on individualism; ironically, that individualism is a social, cultural construct built into heritage, language, thought, at a level that - for some people - makes it indistinguishable from rationality itself.

There's a deep paradox of Western society in there, one that looks at the existing norms and demands we decide between them being easily dismissed preferences that others have no right to impose, or scientific facts we must consider inseparable from sanity, leading to control over whatever a culture can affirm. This is not healthy.

Hell, it's almost silly. We are a culture that doesn't believe in culture. And the reason is because, after the fact/value problem has been fully understood, taking culture seriously requires taking some form of authority seriously. Either a father's teaching, a university instructor's teaching, a religious leader's teaching, we get our ideas from somewhere. Allowing people to choose which ones they take seriously will either assure that they take none seriously, or assure that they subscribe to the ones that are most likely to lead to their empowerment.

But we still want what we believe to be true, and we'll say what we need to say in order to make it true to us. We want our way to be the way, even if it's a hand-me-down, an inheritance, a matter of faith. This is where some people get depressed. But it's not a tragedy; it's what makes life as we know it possible. We're not fighting to establish what's true. We're fighting to establish ourselves and how we connect to other people. And that's what makes it interesting.