Saturday, December 17, 2016

Clique Here

A question was asked in a non-political chat: what causes people to be in cliques?

The response, in a group of people who self-identify as introverts and outsiders, was quite enthusiastic:

People are afraid of being alone. People are insecure. People are unoriginal and have to have others think for them. Herd mentality. People are followers, not leaders. Some people gravitate toward familiarity and can't stand those who aren't like them. Lots and lots of negative things to say about cliques. Even the word sheeple found use, without irony.

Bitch, please. A clique is just an in-group, and in-groups have serious value. An in-group is made up of people who know each other well enough to understand each other's point of view, so especially for introverts and self-diagnosed outsiders, you need these associations. It's your social support system, like an ad hoc family.

So I said this, the reaction was mixed, and things developed. Quickly enough, it becomes obvious that there are two different understandings of what a clique is. The first is this straightforward in-group idea. The second couldn't be immediately defined, but it came from memories of being in high school and the cool kids not inviting everyone to their parties.

Ultimately, the definition clarified and as it turned out, the perceived difference between a group and a clique can be summed up as exclusion. Cliques are bad because they exclude people, but normal groups are good and welcome everyone.

You can see some things going on here easily enough. There's a big dose of that feeling-first moral subjectivity in play. There's good old Nietzschean slave-morality resentment, aimed at popular kids who probably didn't even know what the hell was going on. And there's certainly no shortage of post-hoc rationalization.

But it's more than that. The groups versus cliques separation looks similar to other cultural dichotomies - democratic versus authoritarian, or cosmopolitan versus parochial - but that's not right, because this dichotomy doesn't actually exist. They just made it up.

It's simple: cliques and groups are the same thing, and they are all exclusionary.

And they always will be.

Want to know why I think the attention economy matters so much? This is why. Look at this issue through that lens, recognize that human attention is finite, and how people allocate their attention is zero-sum. You can't pay attention to everyone at once. Form a relationship with one person, and it comes at the cost of other potential relationships you could have had. Attention has opportunity costs.

Get this into your head, and exclusion isn't a flaw or an inconvenience anymore. It's as inevitable as gravity. And while you can deal with gravity, factor in gravity, even work around gravity, you can't repeal the law of gravity.

So to deal with attention scarcity, everyone excludes by choosing, and we almost always choose to pay attention to those who have value to us, and who will pay attention back. You develop trust through experience with them. Sounds rational as hell to me. And you know this intuitively, because you know there's a difference between having friends you actually keep up with and having fans. People with 10,000 Facebook friends don't have 10,000 active relationships. What they have is an audience.

So cliques or whatever the hell you want to call them, are not dangerous or bad. Quite the opposite, a clique is a base unit of social organization. A business is an enhanced formal clique. A church is an enhanced formal clique. And a country is a goddamn tuxedo-wearing badass of a super-clique.

Should businesses have to pay anyone who asks them for money regardless of whether they've invested themselves in the group by working? Should it have to give a job to anyone who wants one? The Soviets built a system that, for all practical purposes, did this; things did not go as planned.

Should a church not care about what people believe in their communities, let alone their congregation? Can you really say they are believers if they don't give a shit about convincing others? Some modern churches actually try to act like this; I'm not sure they should really be called churches anymore.

Formal groups, in particular, owe their own people an attention exchange that they do not owe outsiders. They control who they bring in and have behavioral standards. Without this basic principle, groups don't work.

And for informal groups? Let's go back to high school for a second and think about the kids who felt excluded. You know the supposed elite children are just choosing to spend their time with people who they relate to, like everyone else. How can you avoid this exactly? Do you want to pass a rule that says all the kids have to spend X amount of time with kids from other selected social groups and limit the time they spend around those who are like themselves?

No people who even pretend to individual freedom would allow it. Hopefully.


Politically, it's fairly obvious to me that society doesn't work without exclusionary, hierarchical groups. If you think those groups are doing shitty things, then you formalize and regulate them. But it's no mystery as to why lots of people don't consider acceptance and legitimacy as a solution. Modern liberals never did like groups, and Enlightenment intellectuals always saw group psychology as getting in the way of rational individual thought. This is a moral issue to them, and in order to legitimize their perspective, they throw out ideas like social identity theory and imply that prejudice and conflict is the result of cliquish exclusion.

Technically, they're right. But if a doctor diagnoses you with blood-borne parasites, then says all that blood in your body is the problem and recommends draining it to get rid of those parasites, then that doctor is also technically right. It will get rid of them. He's just also, you know, a fucking idiot.

There is no magical state of unbounded individuality that, if we could just get there, would lead to everyone thinking with perfect Spockish logic and coming to the same harmonious conclusions.

There is no gleaming social paradise where in-group pressure ceases to exist, where everyone gets what they want from everyone else, where attention scarcity is as meaningless as a scarcity of money in a state of perfect communism.

There is no perfect reconciliation of individual freedom and social order to be found here, making this a fight of good versus evil.

There's only one side versus another, one group versus another. This has to be managed internally, but it can't be stopped.

So maybe, just maybe, the problem isn't with exclusionary groups, which are so obviously necessary. The problem is in the moral perspective which sees prejudice and conflict as totally unnecessary evils. Rational moral systems organize the unavoidable into something productive. They don't make a wish and hope it disappears.

Utopians should stick to fiction.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Incredible President Trump

It's been nine days, and I think I've finally wrapped my head around the election of Donald Trump. Sometimes, you're just wrong. On this election, I was wrong.

I'm kind of cool with it. The victory of Trump over the Democratic establishment made me feel oddly self-satisfied, as if some of the problems I see were seen by others and they responded. Much as I loathe democracy, there's a pleasure to that, as for the first time in a while I didn't feel like a man without a country.

This lasted one night.

Since then, of course, protests and riots and assorted childish stupidity. THIS does not surprise me. Laziness and arrogance lost the election for the left. No other candidate could have failed to win this thing except Hillary Clinton, arguably the least trustworthy career politician on this earth. Bernie would have won. Shit, Al Sharpton might have won. This was a freakish fluke.

But it's still an educational experience. Here are some things I learned, a couple things that are pleasant to see, and a couple that are definitely not.

First lesson: Donald Trump is not an idiot.

Of course lots of people have problems with political correctness, with the hollowing out of the industrial base through globalist trade, with the nakedly hypocritical leftist philosophy on race, and with general leftist intellectual arrogance. But what I expected was that the moral conditioning given to us by two thousand years of Judeo-Christian thought would simply not allow a majority of people to elect a man who looks like the stereotype of every big business bad guy from film and TV, electoral college be damned.

But evidently, Trump operates at a visceral level for a lot of people. I just happen to not be one of them. Others read between the lines of his rhetoric and concluded that he was on their side, regardless of his long-standing 1%er public persona. Looking back, it's not so surprising. But at the time, it was absurd to the point of laughable.

And I did laugh when he was elected. I damn near needed oxygen from a medical supply company, I was laughing so hard.

Eventually, I should probably admit that there are still a lot of people in this country who know that having rights and quality of life and security require exclusion, boundaries, and strategic concern for their culture. We still retain a touch of structuralism around these parts. I was worried the average person was too stupid to get this. And it was close; Hillary won the popular vote, despite being arguably the most passionless and untrustworthy candidate the left could have possibly brought forward.

But still, she lost. The conditioning is soft in the boondocks. Trump figured that out. And I, for one, welcome our newfound meme-tastic orange overlord who has risen from the ashes of their voting rage.

Second Lesson: The left's power is still limited

You know the saying: you can fool some people all the time, you can fool all people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time. Accusations of bigotry and small-mindedness come with limits, and right now, the left is scrambling internally to figure out how to deal with their own epic, insane failure, and the temper tantrum of last couple of days is not the way.

Jonathan Haidt knows this. He's one of the smarter ones, throwing out some very sophisticated ideas to explain away what just happened, trying to sound even-handed. He's still a partisan, mind you, and he knows that this reaction can go a long way in justifying a similar reaction from the right the next time they lose an election. Meanwhile, Slate is saying there's no such thing as a good Trump voter. Such sentiments are everywhere. That should bring them over to the side of good, post-haste!

Then there are the multitude of examples of blatant media partisanship from sources that, until this election, would tell you with a straight face that they were reporting the news and not creating it. This really won't hurt them in the long run, but the clear lack of trust in the MSM from Trump's constituency has set off alarms and the overbearingly superior attitude is currently in disarray.

If you were on Trump's side, then here, have some schadenfraude. Then top it off with some even richer, creamier hardcore schadenfraude.

Also, please note that, when it comes to Sanders, there's a tremendous appropriateness to this entire situation. Yes, Bernie would have won the general election. Free shit combined with his earnest idealism certainly would have done the job better, and it only needed to be a little bit better.

But the DNC fucked him, and this is beautiful. Why? Because Bernie is a socialist, meaning that he stands for the abandonment of individual agency in favor of a large, bureaucratic organization making decisions for people based on a politically pragmatic vision of what its leaders think is right.

And Bernie got fucked over by a large, bureaucratic organization making decisions for people based on a politically pragmatic vision of what its leaders thought was right.

And, as it turns out, it wasn't right, it didn't work, it didn't do the job, and the hubris was matched only by the complete disinterest in what their people really needed.

Third Lesson: The alt-right sucks now

This came from a brief period before the election, after the "deplorables" comment from Clinton, when I renewed my interest in things political and checked out some alt-right message boards. What I found was... interesting. Basically, I heard this:

Yes, the Jews. Covetous Jews.

Why, you ask, did it come down to this? Well, to gain voter support, leftists use ideas like "free shit, paid for by taxes on the rich" to bring in stupid people. This is compatible with, but quite different from, their more sophisticated ideas on class, morality, and the role of government. The alt-right, when they want to bring in voters, also has to simplify its message. And so while it might be able to trace some of its ideas back to neoreactionaries like Moldbug - sorry, (((Moldbug))) - it will go for the simplest, stupidest explanation possible. And that explanation is basically that the fuckin' Jews did it.

They mixed this with a general slagging of blacks, Muslims, and Mexicans, some shitposting and legitimate ideas, some very obviously genuine supremacist garbage that's contradictory and brazenly stupid. Some have called this a breakdown of a racial detante. It's a bold strategy, Cotton. It's simple. It gets attention. It's a conspiracy that directs no blame onto the dirt-poor country bumpkins these people think they're defending. Fucking perfect. There are even NRx guys who have given this lowest common denominator solution their full blessing. And I'm sure that after decades of PC culture, taunting the heebs and their hidden Jew gold is way too much fun.

The alt-right had to go low because voting! God, I hate democracy. 

To these people, Trump is incredible. And I agree: he's incredible. As in not credible. Whatever wondrous magic they think he will accomplish in their name, disappointment is around the corner.

Lesson Four: this doesn't change anything

Once again, fucking democracy. Trump has four years. Since a fairly conventional Republican congress is waiting, he's already moderating his positions, largely because he's not an idiot. He will be burning a lot of his political capital to get healthcare reform passed - again - and any new infrastructure spending funded.

His economic policies are mostly meh. I'm the most hierarchical, pro-capitalist asshole I know, and I still don't think that radical reductions of the tax rate for the rich will be slamming growth into overdrive, certainly not enough to be revenue neutral. There's just as good of a chance that it will raise inflation for nothing, because we aren't going to see a mass influx of industry coming back to America and productivity changes from this kind of policy take forever. He's probably not going to be able to get those tax breaks passed regardless, and either way, we're going to continue with deficit spending for the next four years.

On social policy, Trump seems ready to do... nothing. There's certainly not going to be a rollback of gay rights or any such thing under his administration, no matter what says. Right wingers of all stripes are certainly hoping for a few years of peace and quiet when it comes to social issues, even though the press is far more responsible for the promotion of SJW causes than the government. This peace and quiet is not going to happen.

And that's what we have to look forward to: the combination of the MSM losing and Trump's inevitable moderation of what he's promised means that the backlash over the next four years will probably hurt right-wing thinking more than help it over the long run.

It's starting already. Twitter just banned alt-right posters from using their service, because on top of them being repugnant to their way of thinking, they're also now considered dangerous, largely due to Steve Bannon getting an advising post in the White House. And while Bannon probably won't get anything done besides being a spin doctor, he's thrown fuel on the fire. Same goes for Richard Spencer, who is rapidly becoming a common political pincushion for writers at every MSM outlet. 

In four years, having the memory of a vicious election behind them, you can expect an equally vicious "hate doesn't work" campaign from MSM pundits that will galvanize the left against Trump even more. Having lost the popular vote in the last election, the media and the reformed Democrats will pay attention this time and probably win.

So I'm not thrilled with this, after having some time to reflect. I was hoping the alt-right would be an intellectually respectable subculture that could help to undermine liberalism and Judeo-Christian morality into the next few generations, as the globalist/individualist scheme fell apart at the seams. But it's not happening; the alt-right, instead, has decided to try and become a voting block, which has already started crumbling into a emotionally volatile mess of idiots. In going full retard for democracy, it's handcuffed itself to its new hero, Trump, assuming he can do something positive and legitimize them. 

That won't be easy: we're handing over an economy that's a mixed but good-looking situation: low unemployment, fairly high discretionary spending, cheap gas, mediocre but respectable growth. This is all cyclical, and not really a sign of Obama's policies working, but it's hard to tell for laymen. The underlying sicknesses, like low labor force participation and unsustainable Fed interest rates, are policy wonk crap the average urban voter won't care about. If Trump's economy doesn't boom, the right, especially the alt-right, loses.

Sorry to burst the bubble. I enjoyed it for a little while, too, and hopefully I'm wrong. The best possible thing that could come from this is an escalating, virulent conflict that eventually splits the country apart. I'm hoping for this.


Jon Stewart - sorry, (((Jon Stewart))) - has had some things to say. This simple quote sums up leftism, on at least somewhat honest terms.

America is not natural, natural is tribal. We're fighting against that, and that's what makes America great.

So Stewart has read Jonathan Haidt, and knows leftism is unnatural. And this is good. It's actual progress, because there are a lot of leftists who think of tribalism as unnatural, who think of cultural identity as something imposed on the individual, who think of conflict between peoples as a residue of hierarchy and class and power that could be eliminated with few issues. They might continue to push the PC line, but at least in the back of their minds, some of them know they are manipulating people for their own purposes and what they're preaching is ultimately as coercive as any other ideal.

Some of us would rather risk conflict than give up and shut our mouths and go along with this narrative. For some people, like the mouth-breathing portion of the alt-right, this willingness stems from a need to be above other people by cultural fiat. For a tiny handful of us who have been in the more intellectual nether regions of the alt right for years, it's because there are flaws in this narrative which make it deeply hypocritical, and once thought through, illuminate it as an extremely arrogant meta version of the same idealistic crap Western society has been chewing on for centuries.

The struggle continues.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Columbus Day

So it's Columbus Day again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't care. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Trump Structuralism

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

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

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

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

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

Unity is Overrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, is discrimination the problem or the solution?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are sick of accountability always being subordinate to altruism.

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

Death Throes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say hello to your new president, kids.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Zappos and Holocracy

Warning: this is a long post.

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

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

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

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

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

How Does Holacracy Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Positives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zappos likes to show this chart:

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

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

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

The Negatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Does a Traditional Hierarchy Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ideology of Zappos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Good and the Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be good is to be free.

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

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

You can smell the religion.

In fact, without theology, this is nonsensical garbage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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