Friday, November 13, 2015

A Lack of Authoritarianism

So, it looks like the college students are finally losing their minds.

The recent campus shenanigans happening at Yale, Mizzou, and now Ithaca seem to be spreading everywhere else. Leftists, who have been very hit-and-miss about political correctness, look stumped by the progressive narrative taken to - ahem - its natural conclusion. They've started wringing hands about freedom of expression and individual rights, which in the past they have only haltingly accepted are not compatible with critical theory solutions to "oppression".

Over at the American Conservative - which is practically centrist to the point of left leaning on all topics besides Rod Dreher's excellent work on the Benedict Option - the words "will to power" are commonplace enough to give this Nietzschean a smile from time to time. Right-wingers just generally feel that its a matter of spoiled kids screaming for more, but their arguments to support the idea boil down to "well, just LOOK at them!"

Hey, true story. It's ugly. Given that this is the most comfortable generation ever and complaints are almost entirely on an abstract level - racial disharmony marked more by unkind words than violence, college tuition costs, job insecurity, hurt feelings in general - its hard to parse a substantive complaint among all the whining.

But also, everyone wants the kids to be happy and feel good, and without completely abandoning the assumption of compassionate good faith from the academic world - which would be clearly ridiculous - no one is really capable of expressing either what's wrong or what went wrong. It's not enough to tell the kids it could be worse. There is no objective line in the sand between true injustice and the breaks of life. That problem is at the core of all this. Justice is what they want it to be, and pointing towards the less fortunate in other societies and saying "dude, chill" is the kind of thing campuses have told the students is demeaning oppression just a few days ago.

This post isn't going to be a total breakdown. I'm at work and I have shit to do, and besides, I've complained about this before. I'm not really here to complain, especially since campus life is in my rear-view. But I can link in some interesting things, especially the obvious loathing of the institutional media to take responsibility for any of this. They seem to be moving towards blaming a mix of social media and general cultural change without giving any serious inquiry into the basic cultural narrative they, the media themselves, have been promoting for decades.

I made a post elsewhere about this a couple of days ago, and it says most of what I think is relevant in the larger scheme of things:

...I've always found it extremely obvious that the ideal of intellectual compassion for the individual based on their subjective reactions and experiences can - and definitely WILL - be exploited. It creates incentives for everyone to blow the intensity of their feelings out of proportion. The more tragic the experiences, the more moral leverage you gain, so you make things out to be horrifying in your mind even when they aren't. The mind adapts.
The only reason this ever LOOKED like it could work is because most societies in the past have encouraged people to suppress their feelings, at least a little, particularly in public. Being around a reasonably stoic and controlled people in a well-ordered society, it's easy to believe they can gain greater welfare by loosening up. But it totally warps the expectations to turn that into a categorical moral ideal. Old societies demanded mental adaptability to be used by the individual in adapting to the society, instead of demanding the society adapt to the mental state of the individual. Turn that around, and suddenly you've made social order fundamentally impossible, because everyone can convince themselves so easily that the intensity of their feelings justifies demanding others give in to their demands unconditionally. They can even convince themselves that such a demand is appropriate and necessary, even heroic, according to "reason". If it empowers them, they will do it.
At some point, academia will have to admit that using subjective feelings as a yardstick for objective social behavior standards is ridiculous, that it was stupid and childishly self-indulgent to try it, and it should be stopped in favor of what we've had for most of human history: objective behavioral standards created by institutions for the sake of promoting efficient social order. And the individual should have to adapt to it. This will be impossible until authority figures are actually empowered, when they are feared by their charges instead of fearing them, instead of being made so vulnerable to these children.
And that's where I am. It's an Alasdair McIntyre-type of perspective, I know, which makes it a bit pretentious to most people, but it's also certainly true. While right-wing thinkers can lament the loss of the Western canon when they see an anchorless culture, they haven't answered the questions that killed the Western canon in the first place.

What I can add is simply to state that which others aren't willing to say: this is deeply connected to a lack of legitimate hierarchy in this culture. No one is qualified to say "this is the standard". No one can tell them that this is the line in the sand. And the reason is because the people who made that determination in the past have always been a power class that were willing to use coercion and even a little fear to establish it. Right now, we need that coercion, especially since the malcontents are, quite frankly, too young and worthless to be a problem if you hammer them down.

American society is suffering from a lack of authoritarianism.

The West was wrong to assume that showing empathy got you empathy in return as a matter of karmic machinery. There is no such thing. Authorities in society already hold the keys to the kids' entire lives, to their education and their material welfare and their sense of safety. Instead of holding any sense of gratitude or love, they see the weakness and they now want society to take control of their sense of acceptance as well, so that they know it will never be at risk. Since we can see so easily where this is going, I have no problem saying that we should avoid it and start taking things away instead of giving them more, creating an incentive to handle grievances without official channels again, preferably by moving on and letting the bullshit slide.

Wait a while, then when the teachers are good and terrified, eliminate the Pell Grant program. Call the National Guard if you have to. That should get their attention. Anything else is just setting up the next crisis.

There is a balance to be cut between trust and good faith on one end of the scale and command and control on the other. You can't run shit without that balance. The solution for anomie has always been power itself. The kids will calm down when you start using the phrase "or else". Until then, they have every reason to keep complaining.

Friday, October 23, 2015


As I've said before, I like to hang out with libertarians, and as a group, I recommend them. They're good people, fun to bullshit with, capable drinkers, and will humor divergent views, even when you call them stupid or short-sighted, which I've done often. The weed's usually decent, too. But I'm not a libertarian, despite agreeing with them on some issues. So what am I?

I have, for several years now, called myself an authoritarian. That's essentially the most repugnant label on earth to my libertarian friends, but I'm not lying. Look up at the tag for this blog: better living through hierarchy. That tag has been there for nearly three years. Pretty obvious sign that I'm serious, isn't it?

This made for some interesting conversations.

Despite the fact that I rejected their label and embraced their natural antonym, the libertarians didn't agree that I'm an authoritarian. They recruit, man. It's what activists do. So I had a couple of very interesting conversations about why I really was a libertarian, deep down. Sometimes they almost made sense. Almost.

Since I like libertarians, and since I'm not a libertarian but often agree with them, I'd like to explain how this works. And since that means going in-depth and real world on what libertarianism is, this might get uncomfortable.

The first issue is to go ahead and say something lots of libertarians are going to hate.

The modern liberal understanding of the word "freedom" is, in the real world, more free for more people than the libertarian understanding of freedom.

I say this with full awareness that "freedom" is a word that has a shifting, self-serving definition. Its ontology is emotional more than fixed, which means that talking about freedom is talking about an emotional preference. And what most people prefer is simply more. Of everything.

To get a handle on this, we need to talk about both libertarianism and modern liberalism, and talk about it with a genuine interest in what liberals today are trying to do.

Modern liberalism split from classical, libertarian liberalism in the early twentieth century, although the ideas that give it shape began earlier, with Rousseau at the latest. Classical liberalism viewed social control in terms of government and people, wherein the government created rules and order that explicitly and clearly manipulated people's behavior through law, AKA threat of force. So to a classical liberal, a good government is one that simply did not do this, and instead utilized what power it had to protect people from explicit force, namely foreign incursion. Beyond this, Thoreau's understanding of freedom - "that government is best which governs least" - was often the arbiter of quality.

This was domestically extended to protecting people from force among each other as well. Banning murder, assault, theft, rape, and other clear examples of people accosting or taking from other people without permission, made for a compelling standard of justice. Classical liberalism essentially declared the sovereignty of the individual. That idea laid the groundwork for what was to come.

The point being, that the government legitimized mutual, explicit consent, declared consent, as the standard of power. That means contractual arrangement, allowing regularity and stability on a basis of choice. Contracts freely entered took the place, in theory, of any coercive cultural system of organizing people. Such choice created a system whereby the individual could select options that already existed, without legal preference from any established class or other clear discriminatory factor, or if no advantageous choice existed, create one. Thus, people were limited only by the possible and by their ability to convince others of what is possible.

Libertarianism suffers, as much as a matter of appeal as a matter of actual consistency, from all the issues modern liberals have been highlighting for a century or more. Freedom hardly seems free when you have no food to eat, no medical care when you're sick, no shelter from the elements, and no resources to make them or exchange for them. It makes no apologies for requiring that the individual deal with other people, often from a position of vulnerability, in order to acquire those goods or services. It does not necessarily care that those who reject society's norms might find their opportunities to acquire them very limited. If it tried to enforce any other standard, it would end up hypocritically curtailing someone else's prerogative to not be coerced.

That hurts people, putting them in that position. And as a philosophy, its attraction is limited only to those who are very honorable and stringent in their understanding of accountability. Normal people do not call this "freedom" in the real world.

Modern liberalism is an expansion on the previously mentioned internal understanding of justice by addressing coercion indirectly, as well as directly.

People have needs that simply being left alone doesn't fulfill, so in the past, they have created institutions and norms to deal with those needs. Since those institutions are hierarchical and result in inequalities of power, the formation of institutions has created a drive towards conformity. Modern liberals want to liberate people from the internal pressures their own society's structures and norms place on them, believing internal social forces acting on the individual could comprise every bit as unjust a manipulation of their behavior as any external force.

To them, government overreach is not a problem. It can be held in check so long as people vote properly. Quite the opposite, government is useful at this point, because in order to relieve the individual of coercion, the modern liberal must tend to their needs, not just as a matter of choosing to do it, but as a matter of setting up a social system where one is entitled to their needs being met, and is thus secure, without fear of reprisal for making a choice others are uncomfortable with. To a libertarian, this is a fancy way of saying theft, because those resources have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is invariably those who fund the government.

Equality is the name of their game. You cannot consider a society "free" if some people have the power to push others into positions of responsibility for situations they had no control over, or to accept obedience out of a "necessity" which was created by other people's unwillingness to treat them as equals. Thus, people need to have an equal degree of power to be free. Where a libertarian thinker sees free choice, free contract, and free association, a modern liberal is more likely to see Leonine contracts and Stockholm Syndrome.

Almost every institution and tradition outside of democracy itself comes in for criticism. Religion is an obvious example: although there was no established, government mandated religion, modern liberalism takes issue with any social expectation that people join or maintain loyalty to a community church. They end up actively promoting secularism with their policies. Same goes for gender roles. Same goes even for language.

The clearest case is made in the economic world, as the threat of poverty induces people to work jobs they don't like all the time. The need to make a paycheck has no doubt created a lot of pain and frustration, worse when the paycheck is inadequate to fund their needs. Its worst enemies are money and property; its affinity with Marxist ideology seems obvious.

They obviously aren't too crazy about law enforcement or the military, either, although their maleable nature as government subunits makes them less insidious. In fact, there are no empowered formal authorities which have escaped a broad prejudice among the modern liberal that those with power are, by virtue of simply having power, corrupt sociopathic assholes.

A modern liberal might view classical liberalism as a necessary ideological step in the journey towards a truly free and just society, but they understandably see their worldview as the natural refinement of a perspective given character by freedom.

The ultimate result of modern liberal policy is that intermediate institutions are being stripped of their purpose and power, and thus their legitimacy, done as a matter of conscience, in the name of greater individual freedom. These people have never had any qualms about killing off every ordered hierarchical group, from the family to the nation-state, in order to remove obstacles to expropriating the powerful for the welfare of the vulnerable. The message to all private institutions is: liberalize all rules, allow anyone to be a part of your groups without pressure or prejudice, or be eliminated. This is simply the logical end result of the individualist, universalist, and egalitarian ethos the West has subscribed to for nearly its entire documented history.


So what does all this have to do with our political terminology, and how does it explain how someone like me could come to the conclusion that authoritarian and libertarian are even partially compatible ideas?

Simply put, if your goal is individual utilitarian welfare in any measurable sense, the modern liberals are mostly right.
Does the institution of property give some people more power than others? Yes.
Does this power result in coercion, to do things or be someone you'd rather not? Yes.
Do cultural beliefs and practices often set the popular basis for inequality? Yes.
Do social expectations develop which could be seen as anathema to freedom? Yes.
Do consumer protections, employee protections, the safety net, social security, minimum wages, protections that specifically target women and minorities actually help the people being targeted by them? With some caveats, yes.

As I said, modern liberal freedom is more "free" for the individual than libertarianism. That freedom means less risk, less pain, more care, more consistently. It means not having to give a damn about the perspectives of those with institutional power, people coming and going from jobs and churches and marriages, no commitment required. And that resounds with people, particularly people who are basically materialists, and who believe the purpose of social order is to care for the weak.

The democratic system, in which an unemployed former janitor has the same formal voice as the most successful people in the country, has created an anti-hierarchical hierarchy and an anti-institutional institution, where the least powerful members of society are given power by never having to worry about serious deprivation. And it has definitely worked. In comparison to any other historical era, the people are more emboldened and the authority figures are more cowed and implored into making a big show of how compassionate they are towards even the most useless and miserable failures.

All these gifts might be appreciated, might create happiness, until people got used to them, took them for granted. People adapt, and as the last century has shown, increasing people's utilitarian quality of life has done precisely fuckall for the perceived legitimacy and satisfaction people feel for their society. All it's done is raise expectations and put greater strain on resources. Until it's threatened, they consider their gifts about as much as they consider the sun coming up, with no regard for cost.

So I don't put much stock in greater utility as the goal of a society. Quite the opposite, when I see that people have so many needs with still more unrealized and more being created, I take it as a clear indication that we're on the wrong track.

Other drives - for belonging, a sense of place and feeling like you're part of something great and timeless - make for better goals. Again, people adapt. Their main adaptation to the causes of strife over the centuries has been joining institutions and making the compromises inherent in them. People need to be invested in something bigger than themselves. Modern man, with his language and complex, specialized societies held together with ideological abstractions, is an irrelevant ape outside the institution.

So empower institutions instead of killing them. Push people to become social beings again, and not self-important consumers alienated by a lack of purpose or pressure or role. Libertarian principles, with their respect for fiscal solvency and personal responsibility - which means the individual has to actually be responsible to someone or something - actually set up a legal framework in which institutions can thrive, which is exactly why a lot of right-wingers support them.

We all should know this by now. Libertarians are often insulted because they theoretically support drug use and prostitution and other forms of vice. But that's damn strange considering how many traditionalist Christians and employers who would need a disciplined workforce support those policies. Why? Because of all those other reasons modern liberals dislike libertarians: libertarian policy demands people take care of their own business, which means joining groups, which means allowing themselves to be subjected to group discipline.

Trying to get rid of drug use using the state has resulted in great expense and an inflated state apparatus, and has also failed miserably. But if your church, or your work, or your family, or some other institution you need has a problem with your drug use, they have a better chance, especially since they can ultimately kick you out.

Libertarianism is not libertine decadence. That's liberalism's job. Libertarianism is not a culture. It's a legal principle. It's negative freedom, which has never been a total philosophical answer to life's questions. That's it.

What happens when you live under that principle? Well, you have to get your shit together.

Few individuals are truly capable of living without support from friends, allies, and powerful people defending their interests. Most people can't tell a safe product from a faulty one, a good insurance deal from a bad one, a sensible retirement plan from an idiotic one. We can't even figure out if we should trust our own police force. It's a specialized, complex world. We do need regulation, and protection.

In a libertarian order, we have to pay for them. We have to choose who we trust, and do it consciously, and provide something of value for what we take that has value. It allows for different ways of doing things, different views, for each group. Real diversity. Not on the individual level, but on the group level, which can help create real evolution. Social ethics, practices, attitudes, restrictions, expectations can all be experimented with, to see what works. In this kind of environment, productivity, discipline, tradition, and strength might again be seen having value.

The practical effect of libertarian policy is decentralized authoritarianism.

And I, for one, welcome it. I want this country to be run by businessmen, priests, fathers, and those who have earned respect. That's far better than the activists, media personalities, and lawyers who run the thing now and don't take responsibility for it.

This might horrify some libertarians, especially left libertarians, who are a motley collection of idiots in any case. But right-libertarians know what I'm saying. They are often religious people who know their church can only be saved by having a clear practical purpose that was hijacked by government decades ago. They are also often businessmen who know that, soon enough, they won't be able to count on anyone showing up reliably for work without paying them a growth-ending wage. And sometimes, they're just men - and they are largely men with a few notable exceptions I'm friends with - who are tired of their roles in society as providers and protectors being seen as an entitlement by those who rely on them.


So: what kind of authoritarian I am, that I'm fine with decentralization and even free exit?

The kind that's not insane. I like being in a dynamic society that has risks and opportunities, which requires an understanding that power can be gained and lost. Since I appreciate the opportunity to gain power, a respect for those who have it comes naturally, especially when they can maintain it over a long period. So I simply acknowledge authority as fact, necessary for the organization of people into functional groups. Their imposition of discipline and desire for purpose is at the core of everything great in our species. And I think that the vast majority of authority figures throughout history have done a decent job in society's most crucial position.

I'm a historian, and before the advent of postmodernism and "people's history", the field was considered a "chronicle of great men". And I believe they were worth the hype. Despite the many "sins" of whites, imperialists, men, and institutional powers over the millenia, they are just as responsible for the good things about any given society as for the bad. And as far as I can see, the good far outweighed the bad long before democracy showed up, even by that terrible utilitarian standard. We have a huge collection of narratives in this culture telling us that power corrupts or that its only good purpose is protecting people from other forms of power, and I think that's nihilistic garbage.

In this hypothetical libertarian future I'm imagining, groups will have more power, so institutional hierarchies and thus authority make a comeback. I would prefer those authorities to be recognized, legitimate, and explicitly attached by contractual terms to the societies they direct. I would prefer them to be accountable, not to the people at the bottom of their respective hierarchies - good God no - but to the pressures of their physical environment and competitive peers.

I agree with Nozick: effective, expanding institutions would eventually evolve into something similar to a state if anarcho-capitalism came around tomorrow. In the case of libertarian national policy, institutions would evolve into something similar to state governments prior to the 60's and the destruction of the 10th amendment, subunits of the nation, handling most of the details except military protection. Which would be perfectly fine by me.

The individual right to free exit is basically a formality: it can't be enforced without stamping on the rights of other people to provide for that exit, with free information or travel, and in any case, it requires initiative on the part of whoever wants to leave. If you can get out, fine: the law will not drag you back. If you don't want to be a part of the group, no sensible group should want you anyway, and no other group will take you if you left dishonorably. With a few minor changes, this way of doing things is actually about the best compromise between Western individualism and the necessity of social compromise I could formulate.

Don't confuse authoritarianism with totalitarianism. There's a difference, and it comes down to the basic functioning of the attention economy.

A hierarchy is a system of attention distribution. Really, it's the ONLY system of attention distribution. Any society needs to distribute the attention of its members effectively in order to run a stable system. Businesses know this: they have to create job titles, departments, bureaucratic rules, and make decisions on outsourcing in order to get things done. Churches, universities, families, every institution requires it.

Some agents have more power than others, with the most powerful almost always being the positions that appoint and supervise the rest and evaluate their effectiveness. Those at the top are, in ecological terms, the keystone species. They look outward at the challenges, assessing information normal people simply don't have the time or inclination to acquire, and responding by sending directions down the structure.

But it's obviously not just at the top: intermediary agents have power over their specific territory or task and the people affected by them, and their judgment is crucial. When other agents are predictable and productive, requiring little supervision - ie when there is trust - the attention required to supervise them was minimized. That's what efficiency looks like in a formal institution. This is why old honor cultures like aristocracies placed so much emphasis on duty, honesty, loyalty, and meeting the obligations of your task and position. Their power required trust, and the more trustworthy they were, the more a supervisory power could treat them like a thermostat, give them their goals and walk away, set it and forget it, turn their attention elsewhere. Micromanaging is for bad leaders.

Totalitarian systems are marked by such a complete lack of trust that they try to observe, control, and micromanage every aspect of their people's lives. Their attention is focused inward, not outward. They were perpetually paranoid, watchful, and ruthless about internal dissent.

But that's ridiculously wasteful. No rational authority wants to put that much attention into watching everyone. Unless, of course, they're incredibly insecure. Sometimes it's paranoia, and sometimes, your system really is at risk, especially when it runs like a broken clock.

Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both fit nicely into that type. They were terrified of losing power. They didn't trust huge swaths of their own people, so much so that they sent them to gulags or concentration camps. There were spies everywhere. The communist system didn't trust anyone outside of the tiny cadre of nomenklatura with even basic trade, denying their own populace of agency and trust in any economic matter.

So I'm not a totalitarian. My authoritarian tendencies want people to be productively divided into institutions that, in the search for lasting power, figure out new ways to get the best out of their people. That means authorities that are comfortable in their positions, that can apply pressure, that can create environments in which their perspectives are held in common and taken seriously. It means unequal power, the individual having incentives to tolerate some hardship, and an honest evaluation of who has worth to the group and who doesn't.

That sounds rough, I know, placing that kind of power in the hands of people you can't even pretend to control with a vote. But while a lack of trust in your own people from the top down bodes poorly for a culture, so does a lack of trust from people on the bottom looking up. People at the bottom never have complete enough information to evaluate the performance of those at the top - their attention is usually and sensibly focused on their own business - and invariably give greater priority to their own problems and priorities. So they have a choice to either trust their leadership or not, which is why most political candidates are judged by character more than their positions on issues. Micromanaging the leadership is as stupid and inefficient as micromanaging the subordinates.

In democratic societies today, paranoid loathing of powerful people is rampant. We don't trust the priests, the businessmen, the fathers, even the politicians which the people elect. The democratic system is a reflection of a democratic culture that views power with nothing but suspicion. We adore the idea of putting systems in the control of machines, from self-driving cars to machine-like bureaucracies awash in red tape, simply because our imaginations would rather the system break than leave its functioning up to a self-interested human.

Today's authority figures suck at what they do, but in this cultural environment, it's no wonder. They can't say what they think, they can't assume people will give them a fair shot, so they backpedal and lie and dodge responsibility constantly. That's a much greater threat to a society than any lack of material fringe benefits. We need good leaders, and we can't get them without a people who understand leadership, including being able to trust them and recognize their own limitations. We have a better chance of seeing this happen in a culture where authority has more power, where expectations line up with honest potential.

Coming soon: Zappos has implemented a system called "holocracy" which is supposed to do away with formal hierarchy. Since I've said that hierarchy is the ONLY way to organize attention, this requires a critique on my part. And a history lesson.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Your Attention, Please

Throughout most of history, the human mind has typically been capable of doing more than we demand of it. Having spent most of its existence straining to contain its energies in relatively peaceful small communities, people were limited by a lack of information, relatively isolated, with not much but their own powers of observation and minimal education to occupy themselves. We can hardly imagine it now. Their lives were mostly their family and work, usually a farm or some simple labor, plus maybe religion and limited surrounding community. Distant places were truly distant, as travel was expensive and dangerous, thus correspondingly rare. While life has not always been simple, you can see why some might come to the conclusion that all men are created equal: men have been equal enough, given how little has been required of them.

That was then, this is now: the most common issue we deal with today is overstimulation, too many demands on our focus. We really can't focus on more than one thing at a time: multitasking is bullshit. And yet we have cellphones filled with programs running simultaneously, we drive at highway speeds while radio and billboards bombard us with advertising, messaging everywhere. All this information is begging for us to notice it, and it isn't simple information like the shape of a plant or the rustle of leaves indicating a predator, the input our systems were designed to absorb. This is layered, deeply contextual linguistic and symbolic information, far more demanding of our neurons.

This is the new reality, unlike the old reality. This is among the most important ways in which our time is really, truly different than any before. Instead of running around with brains and senses overbuilt to handle the information of the natural world that surrounds us, we are running around in totally man-made circumstances, overloaded with data which our brains only half-process, coming from senses strained for bandwidth. A balance has shifted radically. Which brings us to the relatively new world where attention is a scarce resource.

The idea of an "attention economy" goes back to Herbert Simon in the 1970's, with this quote:
“ an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."
I've been talking about the attention economy obliquely for two years on this blog, but now it's time to start hitting it directly. Some of what I post here is from my economics thesis, which was not even close to complete but pulled the issues into order. In this post, I'll focus on the problems that have not been discussed elsewhere, and deal with them in further posts. There is a lot to say, and this is just the beginning.

We have to start by knowing where the attention economy is, as a scholarly subject.

The Ideological Divide 

Since the concept of the attention economy has only been around a few decades, most of its developments and views are very contemporary. Most work has come about since the 90's, and you can find a good, fairly brief guide in Tiziana Terranova's Attention, Economy, and the Brain.

The topic started to gain traction when the internet became a thing, and there were a lot of blowhard pronouncements about the new, unlimited virtual frontiers that the internet would bring, and even more predictions of a humanity being united by the web on an individual level, entering in a new era of peace, equality, and prosperity. The technology was supposed to undermine conventional economics.

Obviously, this didn't happen. Conventional economics were reinforced, and if anything, we merely have more problems to deal with. Quite a few academic publications came out to explain it.

Two sides have developed in attention economy literature, and those sides correspond to fairly predictable left-right ideology. None of the literature actually discusses it in terms of political continuum, but the split is absolutely there.

The first side is represented by the most mainstream of books on the attention economy, Davenport and Beck's The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. This book places the attention economy in a commercial context, both in the way that businesses vie for your attention, but also in the way that businesses allocate the attention of their employees effectively, toward greater productivity and creativity. It also firmly establishes attention as a currency, and clearly explains the logic behind the view: attention is the means of exchange for information, it's scarce, it's more or less universally valued, and it can be invested.

There are a number of authors associated with this conventional view of attention issues, including William Ocasio, Michael Goldhaber, and Katherine Hayles. Their efforts go to streamlining conventional systems to deal with externalities, particularly distraction.

Employers have a very obvious reason to try and get attention from consumers and avoid employee distraction. In order to sell anything, you have to get customers into your store and looking at your product. That's what the entire field of marketing does, obviously. And of course, it's incredibly costly to business for its working employees to get pulled in and out of focus, worse than expected according to research on cognitive function.

On a deeper level, the proliferation of marketing tactics like spamming have created questions about ethical use of the internet. Obviously, spam and pop-ups feel like an unwanted intrusion into your surfing, but the lines are fuzzy; use of the unstructured medium of the internet has started bringing about new laws trying to set boundaries on when and how you can be contacted, and completely new, radical ideas have come about to deal with "information pollution". Ronald Coase, the economist who created the finest work on market structure known to the field, said years ago that such issues could be handled by modifying property rights and treating information overload as an externality. Goldhaber - creator of the term "attention economy" - seemed to approve of the notion of "attention bonds", basically the idea that marketers would warranty the value of their message to ensure it isn't a waste of your time.

Such ideas view interactions as exchanges of attention in a classical economic sense, and that context is used to flesh out social phenomena like the publishing industry and celebrity influence. It's explanatory and occasionally jumps into bigger questions than business and a conventional view of individual justice, but at the same time, tepid.

What these ideas have in common is a common perception of property rights and institutional structure as viable and valid concepts, to be respected and, perhaps, responsibly regulated. That perspective often ends up sounding like trendy, gimmicky, New Business buzzword spouting which hides a multitude of sins: it assumes that businesses have the prerogative to control their employees' behavior, including what they focus on, and also assumes legal individualism is the fundamentally correct paradigm within which to understand the questions of justice, while also trying to balance that individualism with the systematic needs of business and order. That's a conservative outlook.

But then there's the other side.

The high theory of the attention economy is basically owned by liberationists. The names change here: Now we have Bernard Steigler, Martyn Thayne, Jonathan Beller, Maurizio Lazzaratto, and Christian Marazzi. The latter two come from the Italian Post-Fordist movement and are deep socialists. This is as leftist as leftist gets.

Marazzi gives a taste of this kind of treatment in his book Capital and Language. He portrays the post-internet New Economy as attention capture on a grand scale, where people are essentially distracted from fundamental questions of justice by increasing demands on their minds, the separation between working and leisure time vanishing, individual lives more fully harnessed by the machinery of business and finance for profit and power.

Marazzi, along with other thinkers in this vein, sees platforms like Facebook as attention assemblages, a form of intellectual framework which engrosses the user and structures their worldview, including expectations and communicative norms. It has positive feedback (although rarely a "dislike" button), a goal of increasing interaction and connectedness, and artificially created groups both open and closed. Artificial currencies like "thumbs up" and pageviews dominate. So on the web, the exchanges that mark normal, non-commercial relationships become a part of the zeitgeist. Lots of these platforms promote certain content based on a combination of your previous activity and broadly popular activity, directing you based on where you've been and where the writers of some corporate algorithm would like you to go.

While you are immersed in this world, the corporate class has swapped your pension for a 401K which was lost after you reinvested it in the company. The boundary between employee and management, the Fordist labor division, vanished. And financial crises that had nothing to do with you eroded your position in society.

Marazzi focuses on how these assemblages distract people from social justice issues, but things go much deeper when you read Lazzaratto and Beller. The latter uses cinema as a social metaphor, calling our participation in these assemblages the cinematic mode of production. We communicate en masse, directed by capital; we view entertainment en masse, integrating it into our lives; we become consumers by social training that's nearly inescapable. Steigler called this "the proletarianization of the life of the mind". From this perspective, the entire edifice is geared towards taking the "natural" shaping of values, the desire for acceptance, and the creation of engaging content that happens in the social sphere, and directing it along capitalistic lines.

At the core of this kind of thinking is a nearly conspiratorial belief that the attention of the individual is being hijacked by self-interested institutional forces, a nefarious denial of freedom that softly forces everyone to become a depersonalized node in a machine. So intense is this point of view that Lazzaratto tried to revive Michel Foucault's idea of "biopolitics" to describe the shaping of the individual identity through institutional means.

For these people, the attention economy means social control.

Those are the two sides you can look at, if you want to investigate this subject. If you read all this and take it in as a body of work within a field, you can't help but to feel that something is missing on the liberationist side, or its' just gimmicky tactical manipulation on the conservative side.

A Complete Blank

I can tell you what's missing, easily enough. There is a complete the lack of concern for attention economics is in the realm of academic philosophy. We have a huge glut of philosophical literature coming out of universities. Go onto the big database - JSTOR - and it lists 134 academic journals on philosophy alone, most of which publish about a dozen essays quarterly. But there is no scholarly literature - none - regarding how the individual should allocate their attention. Ethics should be all over this subject, but because of how we view the relationship between ethics and freedom, there is none whatsoever.

There is a body of philosophical work focused on attention in the sense of how it works. Epistemologists love the topic, ever since William James started analyzing it over a century ago. The most recent publications sound promising: one by Sebastian Watzl from the University of Oslo called "The Philosophical Significance of Attention", and Wayne Wu's simply titled collection "Attention (New Problems in Philosophy)".

But it's all theory on how attention actually works in the brain, mechanically. Tons of ideas on how you can cast your attention, which has little value for ethics or social philosophy and really belongs in the hard sciences. But there are few serious questions on the concept of agency, and none which approach the attention economy in terms of the ethics behind participating in it. Epistemologists look at attention as a near-mechanical process, which basically upsets the entire Western apple cart of individual autonomy, choice, responsibility, and authenticity.

What if you assume choice? What if you aren't a determinist, at least on some level? Certainly there are a few philosophers who aren't, particularly since so many other philosophical publications try to convince people to change things, especially their minds.

So lots of philosophers assume change and self-direction are possible, but when it comes to where you should direct your attention, there is no systematic theory. That goes for society or for the individual.

So, how should attention be allocated?

In the entire field of philosophy, there is no answer.

The liberationists aren't exactly wrong, but their material is completely negative. They present problems, at least in some sense of the word. They present no solutions.

You can easily say that attention allocation should be aligned towards what you value, and that value is subjective and personal. But this is the most damaging statement possible to the idea of any ethics being objectively correct or superior and would undermine the entire field of social and ethical philosophy if taken at face value.

And it's obviously not that simple anyway. Intuitively, it's better for someone to use their attention on things like learning about public health, finding the most worthy charitable causes, and playing watchdog with public officials, instead of casting their attention towards something frivolous like celebrity gossip or chatroom shit-talking. Attention is a currency, and so its use can be seen like a more immediate analogy for how we use wealth. And there is no lack of philosophical literature on how society should use wealth. Every philosopher has an opinion, and most think their opinions are more than just opinions.

Shouldn't there be a literature on the fair and just distribution of attention, just as there is for a fair and just distribution of wealth?

The Next Step

So you see why I'm knee-deep in this subject.

Here, more than anywhere else, the conservative side has a true ideological advantage over the liberationist, left-wing side. Every organized society has already addressed attention allocation at some point, and most have addressed it the same way.

It's called a hierarchy.

William Ocasio's Towards an Attention-based View of the Firm got as close as anyone has yet... and really, he's not very close. Working hand-in-hand with the logic of institutions informal and then formal, societies have worked towards what they value by placing responsibility on an individual or group within the group and giving them the prerogative to assign roles and tasks to other parts of that group. This is naked attention allocation... and the practical definition of social power. People had to accept this or face the consequences, sometimes violence or ostracism. That's an incredibly ancient arrangement.

It's a complete arrangement, too. Role pervades everything. What we do within institutions, from marriage to business to neighborhood, is regulated by social norms that have been established and refined from that bare logic of specialization and identity millenia ago. We've been selected by our ability to deal with it, had thousands of years to get used to it. There is, despite the hype, no known alternative.

In more recent times, following the normalizing of specialization and large-scale society, particularly in the West, the game changed. Thought became complex, people justified and damned the arrangements in turn, and powerful people realized that tools other than threats could be used if you understood the value systems of the people you dealt with. Symbols gained meaning and power, awareness of self and group more important. As individuals, choice became central to our perception of control. Society has always been an attention assemblage. It reinforces itself daily and affects everything about the individual.

Social structure exists to allocate attention effectively. Everything else stems from this idea.

Attention is the reason you can have a "circle" that expands outward, from friends and family to nation or more abstract notions of a "people". The facet of existence that makes you more bound to one individual than another, the element which gives credence to people being a product of their social environment, that's attention, and attention allocation is the basis for the structuralist understanding of human behavior and society. Being a function of time, attention is also fundamentally scarce and thus zero-sum. The importance of that zero-sum nature, the cooperation and competition it produces, makes the human species what it is.

It's an easy money guess to say that a failure to understand that is why the internet didn't lead to a utopia. And Herbert Simon basically told us so two decades before the web became normal.

The depth and importance of this topic are staggering. Despite what you may have heard, it's not advisable to say that your field makes a huge, paradigm-shifting difference to basically all of the social sciences, a difference so massive that entire fields become one-dimensional studies of petty, conditional interactions of no significance in comparison. But this topic deserves it.

That's how big this is. Attention acts as a currency in most ways, the limited resource we universally exchange for information. But it is also more than a currency. It is prior to all other social currencies. Attention must be exchanged before any other exchange can take place. So attention is actually a meta-currency.

Georg Simmel's old and very long classic The Philosophy of Money takes its time in explaining that money turns subjective values into objective realities through society. Money, once again, is power. So if the formal surface currency of money holds the power to give life to your values, what kind of power does the meta-currency of attention hold?

Quick answer: it has the power to create and change those values at the source. It is the currency of your mind, and everyone else's mind. Trying to understand society without understanding attention is like trying to understand a computer without understanding electricity or binary language.

Knowing all this presents a lot of challenges, including the obvious questioning of religion and the legitimacy of authority figures, but when the self is understood as a product of attention just as much as the society, it ultimately reinforces institutions and culture.

And while society rails against any greedy, or at least unseemly, accumulation of wealth, the lustful accumulation of attention is a far greater problem. How can you deny that the time period you live in is characterized by a nearly psychotic rush of huge numbers of people to get others to pay attention to them? They'll pay money by the pile to get you to pay attention. From social media to celebrity douchebaggery, this is our culture, avoiding boredom and loneliness by watching the sensory overload fed by free market competition for your eyeballs. You wish you could control it so you could reduce the flow when you're overloaded and find something good on TV when you're bored, but the grasping flood comes at you in waves, like a stock market boom. The Christians call monetary greed "avarice"; in keeping with the idea, the best way to understand this issue is with the proper name of attention avarice.


Lots of subjects need to be addressed within the context of the attention economy. Eventually, all subjects within the social sciences need a reality check, but on this blog, we're going to start out with a few limited selections:

Gender identity and attention. Men and women operate differently in groups, and the male gender identity in particular is built for operating within a hierarchical order. Thus there are some traits of men which need to be reexamined for their value in distributing attention effectively in both large and small groups. Like a lot of this work, this is going to be an extension on the Efficiency of Being a Dick post.

A few years ago, the dichotomy of hyperattention versus deep attention went through a vogue in the media, then with flawless irony, disappeared from the landscape as we stopped giving a shit and turned our attention elsewhere. It's worth the investment to bring it up again.

Structure and Morality. This is the most pivotal topic currently undiscussed in politics, undiscussed because it seems so irrelevant in an individualist country. But it's not irrelevant at all, particularly when you start looking at the practical problems of attention scarcity.

Your work and its value. Most people would say that engineers, because of their paychecks and the tangible results of what they do, are powerful and respected. And plenty of people talk about the STEM fields and their importance. But engineers don't make the plans; they carry them out, inform the ones making the plans of what's possible. Same with doctors. We need a reality check on what positions in society actually lead to real change and influence, and in the process, we can remind ourselves why so many people are enamored with activism, advocacy, journalism, entertainment, and the risky, low-paying jobs with the potential to really change the world, for better or worse.

There will be a post on the mechanics of attention. The relationship between how we allocate attention and value merits that discussion, and there may even be some math. Yes, fucking math. To model it (see the next entry) and to otherwise rationalize it and make this useful, we need some goddamn math.

Attention and the EGM. The endogenous growth model, AKA the Romer model, is the reigning macroeconomic paradigm that is used by policymakers and by academia at large to understand economic development. What separates the EGM from earlier models - the Malthus and Solow models specifically - is that it proscribes no fundamental limit on expansion, because the key variable is neither land nor capital, but rather technology, reliant on human development and thus education. The attention economy clearly calls this idea into question.

The power of media and mass attention assemblages. This is far from a new subject, and some of the previous contributors - I'm thinking Marshall McLuhan - are brilliant and capable thinkers. But the topic is also shallow and ends up being misunderstood. Attention capture on mass scale is as old as the written word, so religion and education need to be added to the picture. But globalism has indeed changed the game.

Legitimacy and attention scarcity, also known as "why some kind of faith is necessary".

Currency systems, including money, karma, honor, favors, and whatever else comes up. All currency systems work within the attention economy and are based on shaping people's expectations, so what makes each different and which work better?

Peer pressure, social "atmosphere", learning by osmosis. 

Formal and informal hierarchy, how they work, mechanisms and underlying vulnerabilities.

Attention, agency, and structure: there is a strong need to reconcile the ideas of individualism and the structural nature of the attention economy. The relationship between individual and society can find definition in these parts.

There is obviously a lot more to talk about than just that list, but we'll get to it as we have the time. There is also a lot to talk about in the nature of liberalism, but that's not one post, it's a few. Politics can creep in at any time, because politics is - unfortunately - everywhere. Attention is an obvious bridge between the subjective and objective, so keeping opinion from fact is perpetually tricky. Academia can't tell the difference between fact and opinion, so I'm not going to promise anything disembodied.

But I'll try to make it compelling, if you have the attention span to get through it.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Practically Powerless

This entire debacle over Indiana's RFRA looks like it's leading this year's category for dumbest and most extreme overreaction in the media, and thus in the population at large. You might already suspect that there are a lot of people in this country desperate to relive the Civil Rights era in a last-ditch ploy to delude themselves into thinking their lives have meaning. But for a culture to lose its collective mind over a piece of legislation so innocuous shows a next-level uproar factory in operation. I'm surprised despite myself.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about what this chaos means. And ignore for a little while that we just got word today that the law is being changed. I want you to know just what was so heinous that it sparked this reaction.

There are differences between the Indiana law and other RFRA's in other states, two or three of them, depending on your interpretation. And interpretation is key here. Sane articles have been written on this, so it's not a complete echo chamber. But then there's the article from The Atlantic, which has over 35,000 shares, 13,000 comments, and the most hardcore rhetoric of the bunch. It's damned instructive.

The Atlantic article claims that the Indiana RFRA and all those other RFRA's are hugely different, and they break this down in two and a half points:

  • The law allows for a business or corporation, a for-profit, to claim religious issues the same way an individual or church might. Two states exclude for-profit businesses from RFRA protection in their versions of the bill, the rest say nothing and thus leave the possibility open.
  • The protections of the law can be cited in the case of private party lawsuits. Thus, a business could hypothetically claim religious grounds for not serving an individual. If this is unique, it would imply that RFRA legislation elsewhere would be irrelevant in civil cases. Basically, so long as you weren't with the government, you could claim discrimination without respect to religious belief of the accused. Indiana's RFRA says that it matters in civil court, too.

The half-point is simply that the government need not be a part of the lawsuit for a party to make the claim, which is redundant and obvious, but which the Atlantic thought important because a suit in New Mexico was dismissed based on that technicality. 

Let's get the obvious shit out of the way here. Yes, this law was created by conservatives, and it has a lot to do with the Hobby Lobby decision. The Hobby Lobby decision - which Hobby Lobby won except in the court of public opinion - was fairly unique in that you had a big business with closely held ownership by a religious family. The revulsion that activists have towards it is not just a matter of women's rights, any more than the RFRA fracas is exclusively about gay rights. It has just as much to do with a perspective on business, which is repeatedly demonstrated in the Atlantic article.

There is a palpable disgust for businessmen running through the piece. That side refuses to accept that a business could be made up of people with a perspective of their own that demands legal protection for the law to have any kind of consistency. One would think that working for a living should yield some kind of privileges. Quite the opposite, what the article implies is that the second you set up anything more permanent than a Craigslist ad in order to make money, you simply lose your rights.

The left points at the Hobby Lobby case a lot because you're talking not just about Christian businesspeople, but RICH Christian businesspeople. Thing are tougher if you're talking about flower shops or pizza parlors owned by relatively poor people. It's actually possible to empathize with them. So given that this is an issue where logic is far less relevant than appearances in the media, some people don't buy it, even on their own side. 

The conversation is not over.

Everything in the RFRA law is meant to continue that conversation. It doesn't simply allow businesses the right to refuse service to gays at will, but sets up a framework for future lawsuits where an argument can at least be made at trial. Judges are expected to operate in a gray area between recognizing discrimination and recognizing religious objections on a case-by-case basis. That's how it works in every other state where there is an RFRA, with burdens measured on the particulars.

The difference? Indiana is daring to suggest that you can have non-leftist principles and make money at the same time, albeit with the caveat that your principles must be supported by some form of religious dogma. You can at least try to present yourself as a person. Sure, if you're talking about a big corporation or some business that has a big cultural footprint, you can expect to lose, as a judge is supposed to sniff out insincere claims and prevent discriminating behavior from becoming widespread. But if, say, you're a sole proprietorship or an S corporation with a united point of view, you might have a case.

Given the news coverage, you would think the RFRA was a slippery slope towards allowing people who run businesses to follow their own conscience. Don't worry. It's not.

The Enemy You Deserve

This entire conversation is supposed to be over, if you're on the left. It was supposed to be over with the passage of the Civil Rights act half a century ago. If you run a business, and you won't serve everyone or treat everyone the same, then you can't serve anyone.

I was, at one time, under the assumption that property rights were legitimate sources of authority, that if you owned something, you could generally decide on how it would be used, and that you could deal with others on your own prerogative. Mutual consent is fundamental. There will be laws governing certain acts, particularly where externalities are concerned, because it's not a perfect system. You might even call it amoral, because it doesn't necessarily define right from wrong, but instead creates a platform where your decisions on the matter can meet with approval or disapproval from others. 99% of the time, it facilitates and incentivizes interaction and creates clear consequences for anti-social behavior.

What we see here doesn't make these assumptions. Left wing people have this narrative of institutional business, religion, and government being controlled by a powerful minority that would divide and conquer the populace and destroy their natural state of all-encompassing love, and that's what we see here. The thought that businesspeople might end up with real power in their hands again terrifies them.

Obviously, there's nothing to fear. Almost every major business in the state of Indiana feels it necessary to criticize the new law and threaten to leave, with nary a peep out of any of them that they might use it to defend their interests. Again: they just objected to a law that would expand their own power, at least in theory. The leftists have what they want. These businesses are squarely on the left wing side, and are using their market power to scare the right wing elements of their state into changing a relatively good law that was just passed.

They are practically powerless on a cultural level. As it stands, the vast majority of the rich people in this country are unprincipled salesmen who are evidently happy to direct money and management towards production of stuff and have their money taxed for redistribution so useless people can buy that stuff, and to say that they think this is right and just. They either want to be popular or they want to live in a gated community where no one bothers them. It's a liberal wet dream.

The same is true of politicians, who have no spine whatsoever, assuming they have principles which might require a spine. They are scapegoats at best. We expect them to act as empty vessels for our conflicting and contradictory ideals, and to crush those who disagree with those ideals.

The same is true of the majority of clergy, although in the case of Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, they can easily argue that they are staying in line with their beliefs on most subjects. Protestant Christianity is the wellspring of most of these beliefs anyway, and the general spirit has never gone away, only the loyalty to the institution of the church. Although saying that they are simply following culture's lead is damning to their self-perception as leaders of communities, it is also very obviously true, and so it has been since before anyone currently alive was born.

And finally, it is also true of fathers. Deep down, no male today believes that their prerogative to raise their children as they think best is actually respected by society.

They've all been cowed. And they have become the perfect enemies for SJW's. Their power is just symbolic. They stand up for themselves rarely, and when they do, they shrink back into the darkness at the first sign of real trouble. They pretend to be dignified, even when reversing their own statements. Their higher aspirations are nothing more than pure utilitarian welfare and freedom of consumerist choice for all. They don't punish you or tell you it's your fault. And they will never tell you about what you can't do, even when you obviously can't. They're here for your self-esteem.

The left says they want serious vision, character, strength from their leaders. Please. I am tempted to think that this was planned, that they have systematically created a culture where anyone with the slightest bit of integrity knows to avoid formal power. But I don't think they understand the situation well enough to pull off something like that. They've built their perfect enemies by accident.

As someone who now owns a business, this annoys the hell out of me. I am incredibly selective about who I employ, and while I'll serve any customer that will pay, there's a part of my mind that wonders when the nutcases will get around to saying I have no right to discriminate against customers who happen to have no money. Applied consistently and rigorously, nondiscrimination means that anyone who does business fundamentally loses control of how they do business.

If we don't have real control over it, we shouldn't be responsible for it, either.

The original civil rights act was meant to address pervasive, culture wide discrimination based on race, one in which people were barred from entry into businesses or told to use segregated facilities because the mainstream culture they were operating in wanted nothing to do with them. It was unpopular legislation meant to force the issue, particularly in the South. Anyone who compares that situation with what's going on now should be declared insane.

Addendum: The Atlantic published an article tempering the earlier rhetoric in favor of tolerating nonessential small businesses with religious objections. That's small businesses, not big ones, so no Christian CEO's, please. They will never tolerate that. It occurs to me that this entire fracas could be avoided by simply declaring that all these nondiscrimination rules not apply to businesses that make less than a couple hundred thousand a year, have less than ten employees or so, and don't do anything that could be considered critically important. Liberals would go along with that, allowing diverse points of view, so long as they don't actually have any power. 

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.