Friday, March 20, 2015

Structuralist Reformation

Sometimes, it can seem like we're living through the dullest age in the history of human civilization, that nothing going on matters, that we're just killing time. This bullshit is so stupid and boring that you might want to stab yourself in the spleen with a butterknife just to make sure you haven't slipped into a coma.

Most of the topics of today, like health care policy and gay rights, are not relevant in a grand sense, but we are living through a change that IS relevant. That change is:

Structuralism is dying.

Of all the changes you can point to in the modern world, I would argue that the most important is the death of structuralism, an idea that relates to individuals being part of a large, machine-like social structure, given form by institutions which largely shape individual identity. We now live in a post-structuralist* age.

I don't specifically mean structuralism in the modern sense, but the general ideas of social structure. Modern structuralism - which is to say, structural functionalism - was an analytical descendant of a perspective probably older than the written word, the thought at the core of Plato's Republic. It is a view of society as a deeply hierarchical body where norms and values are shared and identity through specialization was expected. Hindu society is predicated on the caste system, understood through the metaphor of society as one body with different parts, as told in the Rig Vedas. Somewhat more recent, Englishman Thomas Starkey made a very similar explanation for the structure of the English state in the Reign of King Henry the Eighth, written in 1534.

This is not to say that structural functionalism is the most developed or refined of the ideas in the same family; it just happens to be the last. Linked with political conservatism, everything about the structural view has been attacked over the last half century. Quite simply, the age of individuals being part of a greater body is over. Even in cultures like China, rich with traditions of respect and conformity, globalism is pushing people towards the natural enemy of structuralism: egalitarian individualism. That's a problem, because much of morality and the human experience only makes sense through the structuralist lens.

To understand why this is happening, we need to understand a few things about structuralism, and about the academic field of anthropology, where it rose and fell.

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Anthropology was created by Franz Boas, a geographer, and an observer of indigenous culture and language. When Boas began his work in the late 1800's, cultural studies were dominated by the idea that societies followed a certain trajectory over time which moved from primitive to advanced cultures - orthogenesis - and this view celebrated Western culture as the peak level of social evolution. Darwin's work, new at the time, gave fuel to these ideas: "survival of the fittest" justified colonial behavior and racially-based social inequality.

Strongly opposed to this after living with supposedly primitive tribesmen, Boas looked at social change as less a deterministic process and more a historical one, filled with circumstantial chance and adaptation. Boas wanted his field to explain cultural variation, but in his own interpretation of scientific objectivity, he did not want them to judge the value of those variations.

If you're a pacifistic person, this is a tempting way to look at societies and the differences between them. Since a culture instills values in people in a fundamentally biased manner, it is plain arrogance for any foreigner to enter an unfamiliar society, ostensibly to learn, and criticize their ways by imposing values learned in their own very different and distant culture.

The anthropological view


You can see the above perspective at work today. It's spread far enough to practically be dogma at this point. For reference, one prime-time character on TV is an anthropologist, Temperance Brennan from Bones. She's constantly comparing social interactions and beliefs she sees around her to the norms and traditions of remote tribes she has studied, and doing so as if the two societies were comparable and equal. That's not an accident. It's exactly what the field demands.

Boas, extremely critical of any sort of racism or cultural prejudice, essentially created a field wherein evaluation was considered subjective, unscientific, and wrong. Today, he is celebrated as much for his social activism as much as for his scientific findings. He humanized people Western society had previously looked down upon.

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You can see where this can go wrong, of course. For one thing, this is a perspective in and of itself, and by promoting it, Boas was placing it above the perspectives of his scientific peers and basically all humanity, displacing earlier, "indigenous" perspectives. In doing this, Boas didn't rise above ideology so much as become an ideologue in his own right.

People need to believe in something, and what they believe is the key to their belonging in a group. Anthropologists believe in something, but that "something" does not see itself as culture in the same way anthropologists look at other cultures, but rather it's a culture that believes itself beyond subjectivity. It sees itself as rational, and rationality is the new righteousness.

This way of doing things in search of cultural "objectivity" is littered with paradoxes, if not outright dishonesty, and contributed to an academic subculture bent on rationalizing whatever ethics they found likable.

For another thing, the idea that a tribe in the middle of a rain forest beset with high morality rates, no industry, and constant boredom is equal to a society which built a Boeing passenger jet and developed a cure for polio does not scan for most people, nor should it. That's not simply an opinion: every time some Amazon tribe makes contact with the rest of the world and hears about what modern society has to offer, huge numbers of tribesmen leave. UNESCO exists because indigenous cultures everywhere start dying as soon as they're exposed to air conditioning, so preserving those cultures has become the job of Western institutions. Many of the people who cry the loudest for greater material quality of life and individual freedom at home also tend to cry loudly for us to preserve cultures steeped in poverty and socially enforced conformity, but somehow, a people who fancies its values universal don't see how irrational this is.

It's a bizarre way to look at the world if you actually are a part of any society, as opposed to seeing yourself as a somehow pure-minded observer. It's rooted in a very pure form of alienation. There are some elements to Boasian thinking that I strongly agree with: for example, I reject the idea that the West has developed anything resembling an objectively good moral system. In fact, I'd say that the West is radically overrated, unstable, even doomed as a society. I also respect the notion of cultural relativism, rightly understood (not misunderstood in the way that conservatives know it). But my reasons for thinking that way come from a very different place.

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In this strange academic subculture where actual culture is studied, structuralism seemed like a fish out of water at times. It's not that advances weren't made: brilliant minds like Talcott Parsons and Jean Claude Levi-Strauss produced detailed theoretical insights, often in the kind of dense and unreadable prose that universities love so much, and which has polluted my own writing. Lots of garbage was created, but at times, the perspective made sense in ways no other study of society does.

Of real importance was the conflict between Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, not a personal conflict but rather a conflict between their visions of social structure. Malinowski proposed that the society existed to serve the needs of the individuals in it; obviously this perspective fits with Western orthodoxy and is widespread consensus today. Radcliffe-Brown, more exacting and less inclined to populism or being agreeable, rejected this and rejected the functionalist element of structuralism as it pertained to individuals. He posited that the individual and their needs were not the base units of society, but rather, the processes of interaction were core to anthropology: getting seriously esoteric, Radcliffe-Brown agreed with Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte that society was a fundamentally higher "level" of reality, separate from the inorganic physical level and the biological level. Philosophers of science today call this supervenience.

I give you here the most important element of Radcliffe-Brown's perspective, one criticized precisely for its anti-individualism in the source, but simultaneously a beatific, sublime, and historically valid understanding of what a society is:
He argued that as long as a biological organism lives, it preserves the continuity of structure, but not preserve the unity of its constituent parts. That is, over a period of time, while the constituent cells do not remain the same, the structural arrangement of the constituent units remains similar. He suggested that human beings, as essential units, are connected by a set of social relations into an integrated whole. Like the biological organism, the continuity of the social structure is not destroyed by changes in the units. Although individuals may leave the society by death or other means, other individuals may enter it. Therefore, the continuity is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of individual human beings and of organized groups into which they are united. The social life of a community is the functioning of the social structure. The function of any recurrent activity is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and thereby, the contribution it makes to structural continuity (Radcliffe-Brown 1952:178).
Other conservatives who read my blogs might be tempted to vomit right about now, as American "conservatism" has attached itself to a particular ideal of individual freedom like a rabid pit bull. As Americans, they are most likely incapable of understanding what a conservative is. They've been duped into believing freedom, order, equality, and merit are compatible ideas.

These American pseudo-conservatives believe in the opposition of individualism and socialism. The reality points more towards individualist, egalitarian socialism versus identitarian, hierarchical fascism.

There is no need to make a dichotomy of individualism and structuralism, however. Placing the emphasis of governance on either the empowerment of the individual or on the preservation of the whole society are, 90% of the time, totally compatible. The other ten percent is where cultures find their identity, just as the information that separates an human from a microorganism is decided in only a single-digit percentage of your DNA's total code.

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Odds are that if you're here reading this, and you know what I blog about, you can guess one topic which gave the structuralists issues: hierarchy. The most famous attempt to use structuralism to legitimize hierarchy was the Davis-Moore hypothesis, which asserted that inequality is justifiable because incentives are necessary to induce people to do difficult work, including investing their time in learning everything necessary for such work. Not all work is equally difficult, necessary, or rewarding, and thus the unequal importance of the position implied unequal compensation.

I disagree with much of this myself for a variety of reasons based on Nietzsche's power teleology, but the arguments against the hypothesis are some of the worst I have ever seen in academia. Many, like systematic scarcity being artificial and stratification being useful only for keeping the elite in power, rely mostly on Marxist theory. In response to the historical fact that egalitarian societies don't exist, we have this gem of reasoning:

 The universality of stratification does not mean it is necessarily beneficial or inevitable. Just because stratification is universal does not mean it is a vital aspect or system need of society. Stratification is not positively functionally for a society--it is dysfunctional.

This is the academic equivalent of simply saying "no" and crossing your arms, maybe whining for a juice box. There is no argument here besides saying that just because it doesn't exist and never has existed -  despite thousands of hugely diverse societies having existed and competed, despite the obvious desirability of not having a hierarchy for the vast majority of society which has to obey one currently - doesn't mean that it can't happen.

People who view other cultures through the supposedly rational lens of Western academia might be arrogant enough to believe something like this. I find it far more likely that freedom and individualism are addictive ideas that have created their own mythos, and that no matter how badly egalitarian ideas fail, the narrative of a paradise for every individual on Earth will continue.

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When I say that structuralism is dying, what I mean is that this perspective on what one does as a part of the whole - contribution by occupying a place in a collective with a distinct identity and values - is in the process of being rejected by cultures everywhere. To look at the world with a structuralist perspective, loyalty to institutions that provide identity are pivotal. This means nation, family, religion, employer, race, something. But such loyalties are precisely on the way out.

In the educational and working world, people never find encouragement to fill in a slot somewhere for the sake of the bigger picture of an institution's welfare. Rather, they are encouraged to pursue a passion, or more pragmatically, to pursue money. There are patriots, people who choose a career with national interest in mind, a form of structural thinking. But those people are frequently seen as idiotic tools, particularly if their understanding of loyalty includes any element of trust in authorities like government or business.

Family is obviously dying, recast as a mutable emotional bond instead of a genetic bond that implies unchangeable membership in a group. Arguing that this bond is good for society on an organizational level looks baseless and most people just don't seem to understand it, as challenges to divorce law and gay marriage have shown.

Religion is effectively dead: the remaining fundamentalists only reinforce Nietzsche's point made in The Birth of Tragedy, that obsession with a religion's truth is a sure sign of its decay. Secularism already won that game.

Government and business from the consumer side, including education and media, are healthy only insofar as they provide valuable services to the individuals taking advantage of their infrastructure. Loyalty to those institutions is invariably conditional, and those who fight against both of them prey on the fear that they might actually have control over anything.

Even the military is folding to individualism and a revulsion for punishment. Find me one influential society today who's institutions are immune from this trend. Or don't, it doesn't matter. You can't do it. No one thinks of structures as more important than the individuals in them in the modern world anymore.

This isn't quite historically unprecedented, but it's close and a few elements like the breakdown of the family really are unprecedented. So why now? Directly from the Wiki:
Structuralism has often been criticized for being ahistorical and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (and particularly the student uprisings of May 1968) began affecting academia, issues of power and political struggle moved to the center of people's attention.
Look familiar? Of course it does, as we know this story. And we can easily dismiss the notion that unbiased anthropological research makes any difference. This entire story is political and ideological, not scientific.

In this culture, where conflict between perspectives is encouraged in order to find the most palatable of them, accepting any authority as legitimate has become impossible. Structure is order, but structure is also inequality, and inequality is now the enemy. People studying culture and relationships should have known, but they were self-styled scientists, not philosophers, certainly not Nietzscheans or even consequentialists.

Opposing structuralism and taking its place in the anthropological world, we find an eclectic mix of ideas that loosely came to be known as "conflict theory". That umbrella term covers everything related to Frankfurt school critical theory, from world systems theory to postmodern feminism, and nearly every other ideal running through the social sciences; it pretends to objectivity only to the degree necessary to remain in the humanities department at your local university. Which is to say, not much.

Individualism and egalitarianism in theory are as inseparable as structuralism and hierarchy are in practice. And because equality sells so much better than hierarchy for those on the bottom, legitimate authority took body blows from academia, media, and the political world. It's condition looks terminal at the moment, although I wouldn't be the only one to wonder if and when society will need it badly enough to resuscitate it down the road. It won't be easy with the failure of organized religion. It will probably be functional: a crisis, manufactured or otherwise, might be the only thing to pull people in line.

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This is partially the fault of the structuralists themselves. It is no surprise out of a clique of people less concerned with empathy than with viability, but they managed to be both timid and callous as they talked about their perspective. Individualists hate being told that they're placeholders in a structure that's more important than they are, and that the pains of their individual lives are not the point. There was no understanding of the individual mind and it's conflicts. The biggest mistake of structuralism was ignoring everything that critical theory talks about.

Structuralists never came up with the simple and necessary ontological arguments to affirm the mechanics of hierarchy, or go into detail about how value judgments and function were related. Thinkers like Parsons and Malinowski whitewashed the coercive, hierarchical elements of its point of view instead of meeting them straight on. There was no underlying theory of power dynamics, and little questioning about the nature of the individual's integration into the system made with the assumption that the individual is tabula rasa programmable.

The two perspectives of structuralism and conflict theory need to be integrated, even if no one wants to do it, fearing that they will legitimize human suffering. A scientific understanding of humanity with a historical perspective should do precisely that. Hierarchy is objectively necessary. Period. The end. Full stop.

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Think about it for a little while, and you'll see why this matters so much. Since our cultural perspective on life is so individualistic, we are having an increasingly hard time understanding ethics and identity. You can't explain those elements of social life without understanding society as a body, one with more going on than a simple collection of people hanging out with each other for the sake of self-interest, our even out of some instinctive programming for being around others. All the divisions look arbitrary, all the traditions look irrational, all the authorities look like assholes, all the color in our culture looks like something meant to sate or manipulate our urges.

Individualism is limited like that. The structuralist perspective has major implications for Western concepts like innocence, trust, authenticity, love, righteousness, and morality, even redefining - in a very intuitive sense - what is meant by strength and weakness. It explains the necessity of loyalty in a culture which seems to not understand the purpose of it. It IS a moral view, but the teleology of morality is rather obvious if you're part of a large, multigenerational group with a legacy: morality exists for the sake of binding and preserving the whole.

I'm not trying to revive structural functionalism, as I'm not a functionalist. What I'm looking for is a theoretical basis for conservatism, for the establishment of the old understanding into the new intellectual framework. Call it hierarchical structuralism. Those necessary ontological arguments affirming the mechanics of hierarchy can be made today, which is where I'm going next. The first thing they require is simple: the integration of the attention economy.



*post-structuralist: vulgar hip-hop persona parody by a very smart artist at link

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Year for Men

The year 2014 will not go down in history as a feminist year - not after the conservative victory in the elections - but as a matter of perception, it sometimes seemed like a really rough time to be a guy. Did you see all the gender wars bullshit that happened? Not trying to make this post a complaint orgy - I'm going somewhere with this - but it's been irritating. Look at this:

  • I've already covered the Yes means Yes legislation. The furor has died down with the law now being generally accepted; the court of public opinion is thus on lunch break until the approach proves too stringent, or ineffective at reducing women's perception of being victimized. 
  • Gamergate: No matter what you heard about gaming "journalism" and slut shaming, the takeaway from the issue is that guys have largely retreated to video games over the last couple of decades, and now, feminists are pushing into that space, too. I despise this topic and avoided it completely until coming across this article, which turned it into something a little more than the usual trolling background noise. 
  • Two videos showing women walking down the street and getting hit on went viral. The fact that the first was carefully edited to show everything in the worst possible light and the second was a proven fraud seems to matter very little, because these videos show men actually trying to get what they want, which is obviously sexist behavior.
  • Swedish prostitution law, in which buying the services of a prostitute remains illegal but offering those services is not, rose in popularity. Obviously such law is rooted in feminist ideology, so bear in mind: men exploiting women for sex is wrong, but women exploiting men for money is not.
  • Several members of the NFL have been metaphorically nailed to a wall for spousal battery, so now we have to watch really terrible commercials during every pro football game which highlight violence against women. Ray and Janay Rice started the trend and somehow, it couldn't possibly matter less that Ray had been struck several times by Janay before hitting her back on the video. His real crime is evidently being more effective in his use of violence.
  • Speaking of which, women continue to be pushed into new places in the military, this being the first full year of women in combat arms. Failures to conform to physical training standards have been blown off from several different angles, ranging from finger-pointing the patriarchy and the standards of beauty forced on women by men, to a simple declaration that being physically strong might not be necessary for physically demanding jobs. Oh, and there has been a large increase in sexual assaults in the military this year, which has increased the amount of pedantic lectures commanders and sergeants now have to give their troops. The military is also widely reported to be demoralized somehow.
  • Matt Taylor, and his amazing shirt, which has the incredible power to keep women out of STEM fields. I've made no secret of being a space exploration hawk, so you can imagine how I look at this, but the debacle actually seemed to draw the same reaction out of a lot of people who ordinarily wouldn't care about spaceflight at all. 

This doesn't include the range of disposable digs that just pops up when I check my email on Yahoo or some such, everything from lists of old advertisements designed to oppress women to stories about entitled girls suing their parents for college tuition money, and winning.


I could tell you that a lot of these stories unfairly stereotype men, who like women have the inalienable right to be viewed as individuals. Most men, husbands and engineers included, did not instigate the issues at hand and do not treat women the way the stories imply. To talk about domestic violence and casual sexism from scientists and engineers uses the exact same psychological tool feminism supposedly abhors, but you already knew that.

I could tell you that there are a host of other issues, like child custody and college graduation rates, where men are discriminated against and have fallen badly in contrast to women. Men are just people, most of whom have very little power. For the media to expose one side of these issues so much more voraciously than the other is a sign of entrenched political interests, but you already knew that, too.

I could even tell you that this expectation that men discipline themselves, sacrifice their own welfare, and cater to the interests of women is opposed to the same underlying arguments that give feminism its ideological foundation, but certainly you've figured that one out.

It's all garbage. Calling out feminism for hypocrisy is too easy, and it can imply agreement with their egalitarian ethos; at the very least it basically says that you think their argument is coherent. Men's rights-style arguments always use the same ideological foundation as feminism to support their case. 

That moral position, that foundation, needs to be rejected by men. It's a dull, tired, trashy narrative and any man who uses it - any man who calls on his own weakness, gullibility, or ignorance as a defense against responsibility or plea of innocence - is presenting more of a problem than a solution. Men are judged and expected to be productive. This is not something we shy away from. It's just that an actual masculine worldview is so rare that we lost the ability to define why it has value. Since there is no widespread ideological principle to ground a case for the masculine perspective, seeing things that way just feels like reactionary dickishness for its own sake, with no critical thought. Instead, when most men think, they think like women, using the Judeo-Christian moral sensibility. That's the only paradigm we know.

If you want to argue as a man, try it from a different angle. For example, when it comes to work and opening up "sexist" fields, someone should have said by now that military integration and the Taylor situation show why women, particularly feminists, are incompetent before they even try. They're building excuses, and men hate excuses. The military and space exploration are difficult, important jobs that demand real dedication, not just feel-good "go team" cheerleading. To do them well, you should be willing to die at your post or your desk, breaking yourself for something that matters more than your personal welfare. Feminists show no desire to live this life.

Imagine someone so offended by a shirt that they don't investigate the hard sciences as a career choice. Imagine this highly sensitive person working with other engineers on projects for years, dealing with deadlines, criticism, and cost constraints. Do you really think anyone so petty will be a major part of some future Martian colony project?

Imagine a female soldier trying to find a way out of taking a physical to determine if she can carry a 95 lb rucksack or, worse, blaming the patriarchy for her comparatively poor muscle mass. Is this a soldier who will provide covering fire and deal with being triangulated by machine gun positions so others in her unit can flank and destroy the enemy?

Just because it's hard as hell, painful, dangerous, loaded with obstacles, with a small chance of success is no reason not to get it done. Men hate excuses. Even if they happen to be legitimate problems. 

These jobs are not rewards. They are not cushy opportunities for glory and material wealth that men have conspiratorially reserved for their own kind. These jobs are grave, heavy responsibilities. Opposition in your career from random chance, project failure, and infighting is normal. You don't start at the top of any institution that performs this work, no matter your gender. No one clears a path for you. Help isn't always around the corner. And I promise you, Matt Taylor took very personal responsibility for his work. He would not have left it unfinished to take maternity leave or quit because someone in the department was making sexual advances. The work is who he is. People like that deal with sleep deprivation and blood pressure problems and a lack of social life as a matter of course. That's the price for doing something relevant. The attitude on display from the critical feminists is precisely the opposite of that attitude.

To say that men need to be shielded from pain and pressure through legal means and social activism, the way 2014's headline stories so clearly imply women need it, is an insult to men. We're better than that. We built your world. Telling men to be like women is idiotic.


Maybe it's time to stop attacking men for having power, or denying that their power is real, and instead try to understanding why they have had so much of it for so long. Spoiler alert: it has little or nothing to do with muscle mass (or contraception, Clarissa). The narrative of implied violence that the tastemakers use to explain away the strength of men throughout history is oversimplified and barren of dignity. We can do better. And men should do better, no matter how hard it is.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

More Books

If you look to the right, down a little ways, you may notice that I added some new books to the Amazon widget. A couple of people have actually used this thing, I never stopped reading, and I hadn't updated it in over a year, so this seemed like a good time.


The first book I put on there was The Unintended Reformation, by Brad Gregory. Gregory is a historian teaching at Notre Dame and a genuine Catholic who wrote the book to explain how what we know of as the modern world, a haven of secularized consumerism, came to be due to the effects of the Protestant Reformation. As the title suggests, this wasn't the intent of those names we associate with rebellion at the time - Luther, Zwingli, and to a lesser extent, Calvin - but the effects of Reformation DID result in schisms, the disempowerment of Catholicism, and eventually, the disempowerment of Christianity altogether.

Lots of reviewers knock Gregory's effectiveness as a writer because despite his rather intense passion for the big Church and his flawless scholarship, he doesn't sell Catholicism very effectively. I think those people take Gregory to be more of a partisan than a quality academic. But he doesn't turn the book into a theology lesson: the strongest attacks are on principles of non-contradiction, the mutation of Catholic concepts like caritas, and the gaping holes in the modern world's understanding of itself. I couldn't agree more with that last point.

Even if it doesn't sell you on Catholicism - and it probably won't - the book's most intriguing implied statement is made in favor of having a strong formal institution to resolve debates and allow a culture to develop a sense of itself, a learned institution and not a democratic one. It is, in essence, an argument for hierarchy. Naturally, I'm smitten.


The second book is an odd thing called Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. Although technically a work of fiction, the book is basically a collection of intertwining narratives about the lives of people in the Soviet Union, written to clarify both how the Soviet economy worked (or didn't work) and how people's attitudes were. Spufford digested an awful lot of material writing this, and it shows. So it's both fictional and, for most people, an introduction to a subject with many details based on fact.

My strongest interest as a historian has been the economy of the Soviet Union. Early on, I wondered why it didn't work better than it did. Later, as I shed some delusions about people, I marveled that it worked at all. Spufford brings all this to life, and while he is occasionally unfair towards those he writes about and too triumphalist on America, excessively interested in examples of Soviet scientific oppression like the hysteria driven by Lysenko's genetics, he is still clearly well versed on the facts and details. I learned new things about uprisings and policy I didn't know before.

For example: most people associate the Soviet Union with bureaucracy, but in reality, there were distinctly anti-bureaucratic features to the culture. Those dealing with the government were explicitly trying to be treated "as human beings" instead of as dehumanized numbers in the bureaucracy's rule-based grist mill, so party members were theoretically given wide latitude to deal with problems and complaints presented by those who sought them out. Thus, people had to develop personal relationships with those in party positions, instead of going through a maze of impersonal regulations. The result of this was a lot of mini-fiefdoms within the machinery, tiny lords ruling over their tiny areas of responsibility; basically, a major reason for the worst examples of incompetence and disorganization was totally humanist in character. There's lots of that, actions with unintended consequences, throughout the book.

From the role-swap of buyers and sellers to the personality quirks of Khrushchev, Spufford humanizes all this admirably. The only serious flaw is how excessively Western some of his characters are; it was written by a Westerner, specifically a Westerner who has not known all that many Russians very well. It's missing the attitude those who study the country know, for the sake of making it more relatable to an American audience. Still, great book.


If you want that Russian attitude, a third book on the list has it in spades: Monumental Propaganda, by Vladimir Voinovich. Taking place in the Soviet Union for the most part (except for some parts later after it collapses), this couldn't have possibly been written by anyone who didn't have close understanding of the country's culture.

Written through the eyes of an unemotional partisan named Aglaya, the book moves through seventy years of history and seems to encapsulate everything important that happened during that time. Here, the attitude is sharper, more realist, less grounded in any sort of idealism. It's extremely funny at times, too, absurd and beautifully drawn.

It's filled with black humor and raw, unvarnished truth, including the non-stupidity of Stalin and the tendency of activist reformers to revise their own history. The last part of the book - when discussing "cages" - gives the best discussion I've ever read on how power works in society from the perspective of those who are weak and vulnerable. There is no bullshit, just reality; every review of this book seems to misunderstand the core of the thing as I read it, but it is not the work of a fantastical dreamer. If you've been drowning in saccharine American optimism for too long, buy this and come back to Earth for a while.


There are more books I added to the list, and more to add later. Take care.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Yes means Yes?

The latest work of legislation on the docket for all-American teeth-knashing seems to be the "Yes means Yes" law ostensibly created to reduce sexual assault and rape on college campuses. I would typically not care, as the law is presently consigned to relevance only on California university campuses and I am thankfully now away from college altogether. Besides, I've got shit to do. But there are a few characters I generally respect, such as Dalrock, who strongly object to it, so I gave it a look. Doctor Who can wait a while.

Good thing, too. This story has taught me a lot. For example, good sex evidently requires letting go of self-consciousness, according to sex therapists, not a surprise to me but surprising that someone licensed by the state would admit it; this has all sorts of interesting implications. It also taught me that even morons can see that the inflated sexual assault figures for campus coeds are bullshit, which is mildly encouraging.

Or is it?

It is not a surprise that the manosphere, along with some conservatives, are basically up in arms about a law which places college males in such a vulnerable position. Of course men hate it. But what is a surprise is that lots of moderates and feminists hate this law, too. Why? The arguments come down to two things. One seems to be a simple concern for the mood: no one wants to fuck up good sex by constantly asking for permission.

The other argument comes down to "due process," and everyone outside of radfems gets to yell about that: Vox, National Review, USA Today, everyone. Since all this is happening at the institutional level of the university, without the cops being brought in, the only thing at risk is expulsion; thus, the standards of evidence can be lower. Burden of proof is now on the accused. It's just a college tribunal, but as a practical matter, being found guilty would still be damning, as the record of the tribunal would still be available for future employers and not being able to get a college education is presently considered damn near a death sentence. And while avoiding the civilian legal system means being able to circumvent constitutional rights, there are clearly some feminists who want to alter social norms through this ruling, possibly bringing new expectations on the courts. So either no one will take this seriously at all, or sales of nanny cameras to frat boys is set to explode. It's a ruling built to fundamentally disempower men.

Faced with the power to technically destroy men without a serious standard of evidence, some feminists, and many normal people, now find themselves terrified of what their own kind are actually capable of. If there's any legislation capable of making America hate feminism, this kind of legislation would do it.

It's not historically unusual for a power class to use slanted law to attack their enemies, but feminist women are not a typical power class, in that their legitimacy is predicated on NOT actually seeming to have power. Feminists ostensibly want equality, but along comes a law where - due to an institutional technicality - the presumption of innocence is dead, where punishing false testimony would be actively prevented by a media terrified of actually causing harm to a woman, and where the future of the (ostensibly male) accused obviously has no bearing on the proceedings, while the future of the (ostensibly female) accuser is the entire point.

People look at this and know that feminism has gone too far. It's too uncomfortable. If the intent of the law passes into culture, the male sex drive will be hammered down by effective criminalization, simply because the weakest of women want absolute control over the sexual context of every situation they find themselves in, ie a forced repeal of the "consent tax". All this garbage mixes effortlessly with liberal delusions of all stripes, but it's become too obvious: this is not equality.

I don't think many students will take this seriously. The ones who do will be facing the full reality of sex in the 21st century: trust, especially of men, is impossible. Given how loud this has been shouted by feminists, they get scared of how they will look. De Toqueville looks like a prophet; that's a big problem, because normal people despise the idea of every relevant interaction of our lives being regulated within an inch of its life.

De Toqueville assumed that America would require such minuscule regulations precisely because hierarchy was so antithetical to America. He was partially right, which is why we are where we are. But the regulations themselves must come from somewhere, and they are coming from liberal feminism. There is no escaping hierarchy. There is only an escape from formal hierarchy, from honest hierarchy, from accountability.

Feminists could swoop in and save the day after enough men have been tarred and feathered by false accusations, and everyone realizes how stupid it is. That would make them look good. But more likely, we're just going to get used to it, and women will grow in to their explicit legal power in sexual matters. They have an interesting win-win scenario, so long as the bulk of them look at this current rule and say "wait a minute" while passively allowing it to become the norm. Believing in the righteousness of their egalitarian cause, they probably don't consciously know what they're doing, but subconscious plans may have been laid, with or without consent.

In the long run, a few might realize that the old ways, the evolved courtship rituals prior to the 20th century - where long, drawn out interaction was the norm; where emotional vulnerability from women was assumed, and demanded tender advances; where women were expected to be responsible for abstaining from sex given their sexual power; where family name and reputation meant that men guarded their aunts and daughters and sisters; where chaperones and parlor rooms actually had use; where there is no substitute for long established knowledge of another person's character - worked the way they did for a reason. We don't have any greater prerogative to trust each other now than we did then. Less, actually. So what was the point?

Lots of people think the 60's meant that pointless restraints had been lifted. They weren't pointless. They were necessary. Of all humanity's absurd hopes for potential freedom, sexual freedom is the most extreme in its hopelessness.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Back to Life

I haven't posted in a while, and this requires some explaining.

The last several months have been the busiest I have ever experienced. I launched a small business, a vape shop, in February. Originally intended to be open a limited number of hours and with a limited selection, I opened it in a decent-sized city where there were no other vape shops operating. Out of the sheer inertia created by heavy demand, it has grown into a respectable business, and I've learned more about how to vaporize propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin than any human should ever need to know.

I also became a staff sergeant in my guard unit, which did its final qualification on our recently acquired Bradley fighting vehicles in the last month. I've learned more about how to use a chain cannon than any human should ever have to know, and by the way, it's fucking fun.

I started attending church late last year, by invitation, and stopped attending a couple of months ago. The services and beliefs didn't much surprise me, but I learned some things about myself, namely that I don't belong there. I doubt I will ever go to church again, and that's not a statement of exasperation or dislike for it so much as a statement of ending a personal project. There's a lot to say about that.

The real kicker, though, is that I finally graduated from college. I now have bachelor's degrees in history and economics, with a 3.7 GPA, Phi Beta Kappa, all that.

College hasn't been the stress test I expected. I attended a major state university with a very good academic reputation, but it's still 2014 and higher education dived for the lowest common denominator long ago. So thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the last five years have been something of a vacation, with just one year of that time occupied by an easy National Guard deployment to Africa to make the vacation slightly more exotic. My courses held some challenges, particularly the math, which is a language I continue to struggle to gain proficiency in. But all told, college was easy.

Easy does not mean that I enjoyed it, and it doesn't mean that I didn't leave tired and frustrated.

This is the tale of an education that both failed and succeeded. My education succeeded because there was a lot of thinking going on in that place, which educators say is what they want. For me, the combination of lots of free time and a near-obsession with figuring shit out, born of intellectual competitiveness, drove me to take a good but rough understanding of society and move quickly towards cartoonishly overanalyzed geekery. My education failed in that, upon serious analysis, the ideas on the shelf available for me to buy, basically Western intellectual orthodoxy, which looked good on impulse, turned out to be garbage, the products of shoddy, slapdash workmanship meant to sell to fools and not actually use for serious work. I actually went in with far more faith in the Western intellectual tradition and the American way of life than I left with.

As a thinking individual - ostensibly what the university system is trying to produce - I had a choice between accepting what I saw as bullshit on faith, assuming they knew more than they let on, or rejecting it and alienating myself a bit from the culture which both supports and is informed by that system. Showing my arrogance, I took the latter.

More than with actual church, my time in the Church of Reason made me an apostate.




When I started back to college after my time on active duty, in 2009, I was for all practical purposes a moderate liberal. The issues didn't bend me out of shape too much, but I thought exploitation of lower classes was a serious problem, I thought entrenched interests among the rich and powerful prevented their potential from being realized, and I thought that competing private interests, mostly in business and religion, created needless waste and pain all over the place. Solving these problems was a matter of logic and what is loosely known as "common sense."

The way I saw it, these were not perspectives grounded in the usual Western bias towards vulnerability, cooperativeness, individualism, or any of the other "underdogmatic" traits; such thinking had not occurred to me yet. Instead, I saw those problems as genuine systematic weaknesses. It was a matter of changing our social system to be more powerful and effective, not slagging it or gaining any kind of recompense for victim groups. I've rarely given a shit about that. So while I was practically a liberal, I wasn't ideologically a liberal. I wasn't interested in anything but functional power. I left social issues alone and based my thinking on a good-natured "live and let live" approach, at least at first.

I don't want to give the idea that I was surrounded by terrible people or that the professors sucked or just turn this into a rant. There are a lot of brilliant and decent people in academia. Nor was I always a fish out of water. Particularly for my first two years, I got along famously with my professors, ran ahead of the curve in my classes, mixed in with the brightest of the students with ease, terrified stupid people who made the mistake of talking, all good things. The first two years were a honeymoon period.

But I also don't want to give the too-generous impression that deep conversation about serious subjects grips every student on campus. During my time there, I was part of a group, which was maybe 2 percent of the student body along with some faculty, who was driven to dive into these things. I joined groups like the Philosophy Club. I hung out with the kids from Young Americans for Liberty, not because I'm a libertarian but because they're good kids who drink with enthusiasm and have a sense of humor; I somehow became liked among them despite spending an inordinate amount of time telling them that their point of view was idiotic. I showed up at Students for Freethought every now and then. And I was president of the History Club, which was tremendously difficult because half of that group was made up of guys who wanted to talk about war and the other half was girls more interested in softer points of culture. Interest one group, and you alienate the other; I got tired of it and gave up the position my last semester.

The discussion groups interested me more, but most of those groups didn't want to really hash out issues so much as kill time or create a forum for activism, and I despised activism on my campus. "Take Back the Night" anti-rape walks, cultural awareness for whatever brown people garnered the most empathy on a given week, and endless parades of speakers discussing the difficulty of being a Latino or LGBT or vegan or whatever in their social environment. Just listen, applaud their bravery, rinse, repeat, probably next week. I avoided it whenever possible, but when teachers are giving extra credit...

That activist streak was not what I expected out of a university. I expected something akin to dispassionate analysis of various facets of life, in an organized environment. I expected something above culture. Instead, I found a haven for emotional rhetoric gone completely out of control.

What's most grating at first about arguing with people in college is the near-complete lack of self-reflection. The sides are mostly chosen before the shit goes down, even among teenagers. One reason I don't feel ridiculous rejecting the liberal status quo is, simply put, everyone else is going with whatever they feel is right and justifying it later. Academia is not really the Church of Reason; it's the Church of Post-Hoc Rationalization. Particularly on ethical and cultural issues, a type of soft intuitionism dominates; people will jump through insane hoops when formulating an argument, just so they don't have to tolerate anything they find ugly, or listen to anyone they don't like. Piousness, loudness, and emotional manipulation of an audience, all are demanded to win, and learning anything in the process is totally optional. I don't share their taste, but even when I do, I find their methods of coming to conclusions suspect enough that I now immediately search for where I went wrong.

My favorite of all the people who embodied this was a tenured instructor of moral philosophy and open Marxist. He didn't teach philosophy. He came right out and said that he didn't do deep philosophy, and that he was a social activist. It was rather jarring that he so often did not understand the underlying principles and perspectives of his own arguments, never saw his intuitions as anything but universal, that he could so easily push them simply because they "felt right" and call it a day. I didn't take classes with him; I traded papers with him, talked with him at the department, and that was enough. His stated goals, in the first presentation I saw him give, were to disempower the police and support inner-city minorities when they rose up against their oppressors. I would never tell a story so cliched if it weren't real.

In other professors, usually in math and hard sciences, I saw a very different story. It becomes painful after a while to see a good teacher who would be stellar with good students crash against waves of apathy. There were many, many grading curves given in those classes. We all knew that the university required a certain grade distribution that the professor had to conform to, and they certainly didn't revise grades down very often. This helped me a couple of times, so don't take my GPA too seriously.

Meanwhile, the debates started to look like just a warm-up for every kid who would spend the rest of their life trying to convince people that their side was right, mostly for the sake of their own conscience, and nothing more than that. Pushing likable ideas to drum up support was, itself, the point. Democratic cultures live and die on popularity contests. Such a mindset is easily found today among middle management and customer service types in corporations everywhere. The attitude of journalists and politicians is the same thing on steroids. This preparedness to assert a perspective and make it a popular point of view are what a liberal arts education actually develops, and it's probably good in some sense that it does that much, because it does precious little else.

Socratic method is hugely overrated: when you're dealing with allies, the dialogue will be friendly and open but you will probably all have a similar perspective anyway. When you deal with enemies, you will not be open-minded towards someone trying to beat you down. Dialectic only works when you have someone who both trusts you and disagrees with you, and the feeling is mutual; how often does this happen?

After those first two years, the honeymoon was over. The Africa deployment gave me lots of free time, and I tried filling it by writing stories. In trying to create narratives, I ended up questioning them, and the rest happened quite naturally. I returned to college after the deployment - I hate leaving things unfinished - and slowly moved further to the right, seeing things differently, until I was no longer on the conventional scale of liberal and "conservative" at all.


Eventually, the thing that wears the most about the entire experience is the complaining, the completely jaded attitude towards material improvement despite avowed materialism. It's not as endemic as you may think in the classroom itself, particularly if you avoid certain areas like women's studies, which really have no reason to exist beyond encouraging revenge. Most other departments were too controlled for direct, heavy propagandizing. The classroom is, after all, an authoritarian environment, where the teacher controls the discussion and is held responsible by higher echelons if that discussion veers too much in any political direction and offends someone. Tenure doesn't get them out of everything.

But even if the classes didn't particularly encourage it, the cultural atmosphere did. Professors didn't directly state that old culture was bad and new, as yet unrealized culture of absolute tolerance good, but they found ways to emphasize material which said this, at the expense of material that did not. Emotional discord was taken as proof that there was something fucked up in the system, invariably in higher levels of the hierarchy. In such a place, the individual finds little incentive to rise to the challenges of the world; instead, they are told that the challenges are illegitimate. The world would never be a good enough environment for your specialness.


They do have an ideology, core programming, a fuzzy but nevertheless powerful lens that they look at the world through. They believe in oppression, and any other point of view is not just wrong, but immoral. My programming is more aligned with honor and brutal honesty, more accepting of struggle, more adamant about the individual proving their value to the group and its hierarchy, not resting the legitimacy of that hierarchy on how well it cares for people who believe their value intrinsic. This point of view is very old and very unforgiving. It requires real strength. Those who subscribed to it used to be seen as the ones who held society together. Now, we're just assholes. Most people think that such ruthlessness has been proven to be useless or, worse, a psychological disorder. I don't think society works without it.

One thing was for sure: I wasn't winning popularity contests with my point of view. People were never going to be convinced of something so alien, so I argued just to troll people as often as not.

The ethic of the university, modern liberalism with a handful of socialist and libertarian dissenters who really don't stray far, holds an unquestioning faith in its perspective that was, to me, anathema to the open-mindedness it professed. They were not open-minded about culture. They were preaching recycled Christian ethics, without the obligation to God. Basically, liberationism dominated, and this wasn't Brown or UCLA either, it was a relatively conservative campus.

So, in the brain and nerve center of the wealthiest, the most empathetic, the most technologically advanced, and the most powerful culture in the history of human civilization, a fresh generation of kids with too much self-esteem and no respect for their society are not directly told that it is evil, but it's implied everywhere. Nothing will be good enough until there is equality, synonymous with freedom. No formal power will be legitimate, simply because it exists, it's power, and that means a lack of equality and oppression. They will teach this to each new generation until the functional excellence of the American capital system and the military dominance of the Pax Americana is overwhelmed by pure cynicism. And they will think themselves heroes for it.

That cynicism comes from being a true believer who's culture never meets the expectations it creates for itself. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with the system, or the institutions, or the hierarchy, or anything out of the present stock of answers. It means that there's something wrong with the expectations, with the underlying values that create them, with the goals and visions driving it.

I was a Nietzschean at twenty-one, when I first read the phrase "will to power" and knew I'd found the phrase that encapsulated the most consistent explanation for human behavior I'd seen. Somehow, I thought I would find something in an intellectual environment that gave me some faith that people were aware of themselves and pursuing power well. I didn't. Instead I found a lot of self-delusion, and by the time I was done, the sport had gone out of it and I was ready to stop talking about it for a while. Maybe in that sense, my education was a success for the system, too.

Now, I have a business to run and a million projects on my mind, none of them activist and only a few of them involved with the subjects I studied. I don't know how much I'll continue to write, certainly on occasion but probably never another nine-post month or any serious publication. Some of the attention economy material may end up getting written down somewhere, but the point will be to get back to life. It will be strange to live and try to find something of value to dedicate myself to, given the way I think, because it's not my culture and I clearly don't belong here, but everyone has to adapt and I'm not exempted from it. The only thing to say is, "we'll see."

Stay tuned, more will come. Eventually.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Anti-Gravitas

Someone is questioning the direction of this country's media culture, and interestingly, it's not a bad article, written by Rob Walker without rancor or stridency. The emphasis is on the characteristic of gravitas, the embodiment and expression of authority and seriousness that used to be par for the course from those with power.

Not so today. With the president getting "interviewed" by Zach Galifianakis and the Clinton family taking selfies, gravitas seems doomed. Walker explains that this is because of the new media, the model of decentralized, more interactive communication that exists because of the internet. But WHY does the new media doom gravitas?

We can figure this out by understanding that gravitas implies power, simply by asking, why be serious about your decisions and behavior if you are irrelevant? There's no reason to do so. Without power, there is no gravitas; it's an element of behavior absent in the disenfranchised. Gravitas is not straight seriousness or misery, but a drawing seriousness that reflects an important process of decision going on. Walker seems to consider it a behavioral trait unconnected to one's hierarchical position, a pretentious seriousness which triggers other people's reaction to take the person seriously, no matter who they are, which is simply untrue. He overestimates the individual and underestimates the context. A serious person in an un-serious situation still gets no respect; they're a stick in the mud, nothing more. But a serious person with power... you'd better take that person seriously. The lesson is, gravitas is a product of power.

And that power requires signals. Back in the day, the aristocracy decked themselves out in jewelry, strong colors, doing everything they could to present a regal appearance. Why? Because they needed to LOOK powerful, which expensive appearances show; the jewels and fine clothes indicate resources to burn. Gold means wealth, and wealth means power, an association so deep that shiny metals seem to appeal to every kid on earth and every man wants chrome pipes on his motorcycle. If powerful people don't send their signals, then they might have to resort to other means - like violence and deprivation - to get people to take them seriously. That breeds a more direct resentment and eventually inefficiency, more inefficient than spending a few bucks on a good robe and crown.


This is all completely necessary to do anything of significance, of course. Coordinated human action requires leadership. Leadership requires attention. Attention is best acquired by having power, which when dealing with people who don't know you personally, means looking like you have power.

Appearances matter. You never saw Cronkite do the news wearing a wifebeater. You wear a damn tie when you want people to really listen to you. But more critically to Cronkite's identity and seriousness was that Cronkite was an anchor on a major news outlet back in the day of three channels and the absolute authority of the nightly news. And that position was one of tremendous power. Cronkite just "fit" his position well.

It's just that his position doesn't exist anymore.

That answers some questions about what's actually been going on. When Walker talks about "new media," he's clearly talking about the post-internet mass media situation, where people have a greater choice of content. So, what do people do with this choice? Clearly, they aren't going to just stick with the seriousness of a Cronkite when lighter fare is available. They would rather listen to the pap of someone like Stephen Colbert as they mock the powerful on prime time, laugh with someone they relate to, rather than shut up and listen soberly to anyone who acts like they mean business. People don't LIKE seriousness. They prefer the pressure-free, easy triviality of pop culture.

Walker's explanation for all this gravitas killing goes back to the sixties, which has its own mythology, namely that it really changed something in the social order. That's a half-truth at best, and if the power of the three-channel news oligopoly had been maintained, then one good newsman with a clear sense of himself could have brought gravitas right back to it. But that three-channel oligopoly wasn't maintained. Now that we have choices, well, fuck gravitas.

Now, don't get me wrong: it's not like people never, ever want to get serious. Obviously, people still get seriously self-righteous when they hear about some injustice the media environment throws in their face, and they enjoy it, as self-righteousness is empowering. The air of power that comes from casting a judgment tastes good, too, and getting the injustice in people's faces is the name of the power game today. It just has to be an injustice that people can do something about, and the victim of the injustice must be someone the audience can relate to.

That's an artifact of old ways, of the experience of group identity and its power. The most important tool in the arsenal for the authority of old was a sense of purpose. From the now-reviled grand ambitions of the Roman Empire to the holy implications of the now-reviled Crusades, old cultures - or at least their rulers - seemed to feel the urge to accomplish something, to dedicate themselves to something, to reach as far as their capability offered. The old orders could do this because, as a matter of the attention economy, they dominated the market. They could shape the entire worldview of their people through religion and regulation of behavior. And their power reinforced itself as their grand ambitions were realized.

Today, that power largely doesn't exist, and getting people behind mass movements which require actual effort is like herding cats. Anyone in the world can look at the powerful and disregard their wishes, which should call into question just how powerful those powerful people are. There is no denying that it is incredibly rare that even the most strident demands - practical, legal, moral - can be ignored, unless those demands are to stop doing something that's an imposition on others, a moral demand in the sense of negative liberty. It's quite easy to say "no" when people demand something.

Or, more simply, you can change the channel. Now that we've given people a choice of who to pay attention to, they avoid those who make them feel comparatively low, and seek out their affable jesters. Thus, we have progress.

The glory of Rome and the will of God are now dead, very dead, but all the better in the minds of certain people, who see grand purpose as overbearing, culturally divisive, promoting conflict, and rightly so. Having an identity creates something worth fighting for, which is evidently a bad thing.


So in this existentialist age, without purpose in culture beyond the individual level, the self seeks value in hedonistic "quality of life." Fun is our purpose. Everywhere, little moral slogans telling us to live, laugh, and love send clear messages to take joy seriously. "Enjoy it while you can" dominates the rhetoric; happiness as a commodity, we may as well try and get the most shit before things close down. Did I say happiness? That's a little deep for what I'm referring to... how about "bliss"?

The new media, lacking its old market power granted by limited options, is not allowed gravitas. It must sell itself as broadly as possible, and in trying to do so, requires lightness and an approachable demeanor. There aren't many people who like to get deep and dark in their spare time. Personal time is expected to be about grinning, relaxed entertainment, leisure time by definition. Our work does the same thing, with every wannabe Apple trying to get their employees to love their jobs by making them pleasant and fun. Members of the Catholic church have seen the most radical examples since Vatican II and the complete removal of testicles from the Catholic order. Members of the opposite sex must be funny as well as beautiful to be worth attention. Friends must entertain. In the process of making this normal, we've created a cultural environment that carves a smile into our face, Joker-style.

Why so serious?

The better question is, why not? Wouldn't our sense of cultural unity be better served by a serious goal? Wouldn't our society benefit in some way?

The academic answer is, no, it wouldn't. This is a utilitarian world. We are satisfying desires, and our culture shall be judged according to its ability to manufacture this lightweight bliss. When people have a goal, when they care, when something matters more than utility, then there's something out there that the mind legitimately sees as worth fighting for. And fighting simply will not do. When people have a goal and care, then there might be something worth organizing a hierarchy to direct people towards addressing it, and hierarchy simply will not do. Cultures that believe in things frequently end up killing people and legitimizing inequality, and to a humanist or Christian moral essentialist, that's evil. The solution? Believe in nothing. Santayana's old saying, "the only cure for birth and death is to enjoy the interval" can't be seen as just another point of view anymore. It's the final solution.

But it doesn't work for people who want meaning in their lives. What worked for them was the cohesion of the old order, and that order is dying. When the hierarchy dies, so does gravitas.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

WordGames: Power and Utility

Slave morality is essentially the morality of utility.                                                                      -Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, A. 260

I've been reading some Mencius Moldbug lately, which is a sobering experience. By no means do I agree with him on everything, but it looks like I need to abandon about a half dozen in-progress posts as redundant. Careful with that link: it's 300 damn pages long.

But still, there is plenty more to be said, especially if you've been studying economics for a while and question the basics of it at the core. Lots of neoreactionaries are actually just libertarians who realize that you can't pull out elections without bribery, and so they don't question much in economics, including Moldbug, who's work has a basis in utilitarianism. Most neoreactionaries go with the usual Western standards by which utility is measured: safety, stuff, and "openness." So in other words, they seem to be on the liberal utilitarian boat. It really matters that government be effective, responsible, all that, all for the sake of creating better living conditions in terms of safety, stuff, and openness, which would be more readily provided in a less democratic system.

Slow down, bro. Scott Alexander beat up on this "less democracy = more utility" idea fairly easily. Now, he used a selective understanding of what's being discussed that thinks as literally as possible about its subject for the sake of creating straw men at every opportunity, but he's right about this: from a utilitarian perspective, in fact, modern society is doing fine. It might be because of democratic pressure or it might be because of a million other factors, like the expectations and consequences and the way they interact with government. I don't know why neoreactionaries would have a problem citing this, except as a purely political matter: they want to convince people that life would get even easier, safer, and wealthier if the democratic system were done away with.

Of course, this is bullshit in the raw. We don't know that, and it's much more difficult to quantify than you might think. The hatred of "demotism" and a strong appreciation for the idea of accepting hierarchy indicates more is going on behind the scenes, but evidently, political palatability is even important for those who hate democracy. In reality, they seem to be more concerned with questions of power than questions of utility. That's tough to deal with, because the line between the two seems clear, but isn't.

Ask an economist, and what you do when you trade with people is not acquiring power. It's cooperative, just the production of stuff needed for comfort. It's not power. It's not control. It's not oppression or manipulation. It's just people making decisions, exercising their freedom, acquiring what they value. It's innocent, I tell you...

Yeah, right.

I'd like to put this to bed, right now. It's a ridiculous statement.

Here's the operating question: what is utility?

Supposedly, it's all about pleasure and pain, to the point that abortion advocates use utilitarianism to explain why a fetus isn't a person until the second trimester: because until then, it can't feel pain. This is so important to some people's conception of the world, and their conception of man as a rational animal, that they simply must believe that once you sate everyone's appetites, the human race will become calm and docile to the point of ending conflict.

So pursuing utility not only seems like a rational thing to do, but more importantly, it sounds harmless, and there's a reason for that. That's the image they want to promote. Utility seekers just want to be safe, unhampered, satisfied. There's nothing mean-spirited going on there. Utilitarians can have freedom, ostensibly without harming anyone. And we care very much about freedom, the NAP, the Harm Principle, for all you anarcho-cap/libertarian true believers. No zero-sum games here!

It's a moral term. To seek power makes you Hitler. To seek utility makes you HedonismBot.



And HedonismBot was always a likable guy, threw a great party, all that.

Now, is this difference between power and utility a real thing, or is it some intuitively attractive horseshit that people like because it gives them an escape hatch against accusations of pursuing power, like everyone does? Because exchanging favors through the system of depersonalized reciprocity we know of as money, using their desires to get them to work to satisfy your desires, seems like it could easily be not-harmless under a lot of circumstances. It's a form of leverage, or even manipulation, contracts nullified as being made under duress. Society subjects people to a lot like this, and it has to, for the sake of utility. You didn't decide that it was okay for your world to demand forty hours of work a week from you, and while the grocery might carry your preferred brand of soda, it won't be playing Metallica through the PA or paint the building hot pink just for you. So, maybe utility is just what can be limited to you alone experiencing it... What about our common experiences? If you think these fairly simple and irrelevant conflicts of interest are a problem, now imagine adding religion into the mix.

Get into economics as a science, and it starts to look like utility is rather poorly defined. Pleasure and pain don't include every intuitive source of utility, nor do they disqualify what is intuitively power, for an obvious reason: exercising power is extremely pleasurable. Hell, in terms of both contemporary interaction and evolutionary biology, the experience of pleasure certainly came about as a recognition of power.

Okay, we can back up a second. Maybe you'd like to define utility as something that seems more concrete, like usefulness. Food, water, housing, a bed, clothing, and medical care are obviously useful. Useful at what? At maintaining the life of the individual in question. And no, sex doesn't belong on this list. Don't encourage the whores.

We might be back at the wants versus needs question here, and just like on that topic, we have a tendency to see people who want, or need, or require, or desire, or just gotta fucking have stuff, and take some kind of pity on them, as it's so understandable. It is understandable, because we all seek something that seems both practical for ourselves and available from society. But just because we empathize doesn't mean there's no conflict of interests. Really, it doesn't look like utility is much more than a concept invented after the fact, for the sake of differentiating desires society told you it was okay to pursue from the ones that violated expectations, got in people's way, and pissed people off.

With that in mind, let's ask the inverse question to the last one: what is power?

Power goes hand in hand with agency. It means that your actions get reactions, that you can predict those reactions, that you have control over your environment. It means feedback that lines up with our intentions. Does this include controlling people? Well, since we basically subdued the natural environment in favor of entirely man-made circumstances long ago, what else do you think you would be controlling? Of course it means controlling people. If our circumstances are man-made, then to control the circumstances, we must control men.

Controlling our social circumstances means the world to us. Why do you think "freedom" is so important, and what do you think it really means? Why is wealth, beyond the basics of sustenance and distraction, such a big deal? Why do we care about participating in government? No one with the slightest bit of sense will tolerate not having control, and in the push to establish a world that provides utility to all, we end up also trying to provide power to all. That's a problem, because while we cast utility as a cooperative game, power is clearly zero-sum. So if the lines are solid gray at this point and you can't tell the difference between power and utility, then which is the valid perspective?

Well, you tell me. Your money is directly responsible for creating demand that someone else work, that they use their resources to produce what you want. This has obvious costs for the person doing the work and obvious opportunity costs for those who would prefer something else be produced with those resources: is this not power? People who know how to codify your preferences seem to be able to manipulate you into sitting through advertisements on a regular basis, a fact which consumes tremendous amounts of time and attention, which is really all we have in this world: is this not power? What could possibly be more useful than power? Particularly power over your environment, particularly people?

Because of the phantom difference between power and utility, people are often torn between thinking that the world is filled with misery and thinking that the world is a great place that requires little to have a great life. That's particularly true for the current generation of "Bright" atheists:



This creates problems, because at the end of the day, work is both necessary and is imposed on us by the world, so no matter how easy it gets, most people will still hate it because it disempowers them. I know more people who get pissed at their job because it's boring than who say it's too hard. That might be a pride thing, but what's absolutely true is that people hate being told what to do.

Stop bullshitting. The purpose of the concept of utility is to whitewash power into something suitable for Judeo-Christian moral tastes, to make empowerment innocent so long as we come to a vague and ever-shifting consensus on the circumstances. You know perfectly well that economic systems are coercive, relationships are binding and controlling when functioning properly, and that no cultural system can tolerate a true apostate for long. So the consensus does what we would expect: it disempowers the empowered.

Beyond all the horseshit of a society that can supposedly support you being your authentic self, the limits to that world are simple and so clear that we only recognize them subconsciously: we can't have power. And that sucks, because power is what we want. The status quo might get us fast transportation, some decent Mexican food, and air conditioning, but does it get us anything more than that, anything higher, anything really aspirational? No, it's built to kill that shit.

The world is a social environment, and it is precisely this social environment that basically everyone wants to control, but can't. In trying to create a world where we can make our own reality without interference, we've put the system together so power is as widely disseminated, and therefore as impossible to leverage, as possible. The American people elect a government precisely to stop those with other kinds of power - violence, wealth - from using them, and that's basically the extent of their mandate. All political sides occasionally get pissed off about what they can't do, even leftists, albeit their irritation is focused on how moving the direction they want to move can take too long when dependent on voters. Even those on the more powerful side have so little control over their social environment that all they can do is what can be sold to the lowest common denominator.

You can make money, but even after the taxes, you can't do anything against the populist grain with it, and therefore you can't do anything interesting with it. You can have your commitments and your loyalties to other people, but they are very tenuous because the world won't support you if things get tough. This is how you build a utilitarian world: you destroy the possibility of using power for anything higher than the softest and most immediate forms of pleasure and pain, and in the process, you make power a reviled thing, even as the leadership uses it to produce more "utility" and becomes reviled in the process. Hope you like distractions, because that's all your life is going to be around these parts. We have no choice in the matter, because to build anything more involving would trample someone's prerogatives. Who says the world you want is the world I have to live in? Or vice versa? The only thing to do is to screw everyone and make them live in a consumerist shithole no one really wants but that's comfortable enough to hold back the most severe frustration.

The idea of this culture is simple: if I can't have power, you can't either. Democracy is the common man's revenge fantasy, masquerading as an intelligent feedback mechanism.

If you're like me at all, there have probably been moments in your life where you looked around at your society as people bitch about stupid details and said to no one in particular, "Just fucking DO SOMETHING!!!!" How the fuck does a society develop spaceflight that gets them to the goddamn moon and then basically just chill for decades? I mean, the obvious next level, the highest elevation of man achievable in the physical world, is right there, and we just sort of... stop?

If this culture had any sense, it would take apart the safety net except for Food Stamps and bare emergency Medicaid, push the bright people into STEM fields, then throw $300 billion into a crash Mars colonization program and pay those new engineers well to make it happen. Those brains are resources, and they aren't being used for anything but stupid crap like high finance simply because this society doesn't have a hierarchy willing to use power.

One thing that really irritated me about Scott Alexander was his complete lack of understanding of the word "demotic." He basically said the neoreactionaries made it up. So evidently, Alexander has never read Jacques Barzun, he does not understand the concept of populist cheerleading of the average and below, and he doesn't know it because his mind is so obsessed with "utility" that it has no basis for comparison. Demotism is a real thing, which deserves a better name but still will have the same purpose: to suppress higher values and the power which come from them, for the sake of the empowerment of all those who would otherwise be accountable to that power. Maybe the neoreaction should stop trying to sell itself on utility and start selling itself on bringing people together for the sake of expanding horizons.