Thursday, February 20, 2014

WordGames: Power and Utility

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

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

Here's the operating question: what is utility?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. quite a few mistakes. Where to start? Perhaps, the author's perspective would serve. Not certain, but the knowledge of antiquity appears to be lacking. So, current culture and a hoped for future culture of inter-planetary colonization are un-founded upon the experience of knowing where we come from.
    Smiles, Robert.

    1. "So, current culture and a hoped for future culture of inter-planetary colonization are un-founded upon the experience of knowing where we come from."

      It's hard to tell what you're saying here, but if it's a perception that there's a lack of knowledge as to humanity's experience with colonization in the past, you're simply wrong. This species is at its best when it pushes boundaries, and if Columbus doesn't do it for you, then maybe learning about Zheng He would. Now, if this comment is some kind of reference to the bad things that have come from colonization, or more generally with Western power in the past on humanist terms, then simply put, I'm not a humanist. The risk of pain and even death does not disqualify the need to grow and reach for higher accomplishments and states of existence. Nor do I see how the supposed sins of colonizing cultures in the past are relevant to space travel, where there are no victim societies to oppress. What other lessons should I be learning from the past? Should I be following the teachings of Plato or Aristotle as to the nature of the good without questioning it? I have a history degree, I've looked into the past extensively, and I haven't the slightest fucking clue what it is you think I should be saying.

      Unless the comment was just a really pretentious version of an ad hominem attack with no further elaboration at all. You tell me.

  2. Dear Sir; Not pretensions. Rarely has another student of History written as well as your self. The perspective of The Past referred is Glacial. Beyond Antiquity. Our Ancestry from time(s) unwritten, only lore myth and cave drawings are available for discernment of Who We Are and Where We're From.
    The Caves. I am only aware of one source of information that leads My Self to inquire if you have a similar perspective available for discussion. There was a time when resources abode the then infinitely fractional population of Humans, Who knew not either the domestication of animals or plants, yet had long known the domestication of Fire; And, lived lives with Intelligence equal to our own that exhibited what your writing Longs For: Harmony.
    Smiles, Robert.

    1. Robert,
      Thank you for the complimentary words. You can call what I'm after harmony, and I actually strongly prefer that word. Harmony gives a reader faint whiffs of Asian philosophy along with a solid technical reference to music, so it's far superior to the usual Western word for a similar ideal in most people's heads: peace.

      Peace is nonviolence, rest, a lack of aggression. And thus, peace as an ideal is a handmaiden to entropy. It's very Christian thinking, to want peace above all else, and I'm not interested in joining that bandwagon. Nor am I interested in perpetual conflict; war brings a society into harmony, and it's bound to come up every now and then, but just as effective as war is expansion into new territory, growth, investing oneself in the expansion of capability, just like an individual learning a skill. To talk about harmony is to talk, not about resting people's energy, but focusing it in a singular direction, to see your interests as inseparable from the aspirations of the people next to you, to share a vision.

      A society needs to stress itself. That stress drives it towards lining all parts up towards maximum effect, like different notes in a chord. Harmony doesn't reduce the power of the individual notes. It optimizes them. We are a complex society, and complex societies did not evolve towards leisure. They evolved to deal with conflict, like everything else that's alive, Nietzsche's will to power applying:

      Notice the tagline on this blog. The main point I'm probably going to forever trying to make here is simple, but it needs to be said:

      Harmony is hierarchical.

      There's nothing tragic about this, as far as I'm concerned. But most people seem to hate it, so there's a lot of work to be done. It's probably not in line with your notions of The Caves and the attitude does not favor the simplicity of the past over the potential sophistication of the advanced culture, but harmony still works as a expression of the ideal state.

  3. Dear Sir; The past presented in J. Auel's Earth's Children series is hierarchical. It is the only perspective available at this time. The research behind the fictional presentation is extensive and compared to living archaic cultures remaining yet today. This series of six books details stratification of dozens & dozens of characters and seems fair as a basis of current societal rankings. The perspective is different from many others presented in academic circles. It fits very well with persons prepared to honor our ancient ancestors as more intelligent, more capable, more harmonious than most are and have become as imposed upon by forces, corporate & others, that do not have our best interest at Heart. Most persons are likely comfortable propagating a Race of beings compliant with those forces. None the less it seems these hierarchical intelligent societies of the last 200-300K years are likely based on others nearly as intelligent owing to the development broad speech capacity with the dropping of hyoid bone at that time.
    If I may, it seems that there are three to five evolutionary developments where intelligence grows and then declines:
    3-4 million years ago, the rotation of the Pelvis.
    UNK years ago, the expansion of the brain, maximum social limit increases to 150 persons
    UNK years ago, the domestication of Fire.
    UNK year ago, the use of implements
    300-200 K years ago, the hyoid bone drops, maximum use of constants and vowels
    40 K years ago, the development of domestication of plants and animals.
    7 K years ago, the domestication of slave classes
    since then intelligence continues to grow, but the species seems to diverge.
    Much more recently, as written in 1992 a certain fascination with a Culture of Death.
    Smiles, Robert.

    1. Interesting. I'm working on a structuralist description of the development of humanity, and this should fit well. The key point is where we go from a tribal species (groups of under 200, Dunbar's number, limited language) to a macro-scale society, which must have happened at some point between the Oldowan tool kit and the beginnings of agriculture. Speech makes all the difference, as language governs everything, a necessity in an intrinsically alienated society made up of thousands in the first urban cities. Thanks for this; I'll check out Auel's work.