GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 21, 2016

A Brief Addendum to “Originally Leftism, revisited”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:42 am

It is already implicit in my argument, but is not necessarily thereby obvious, that a large part of the attraction of exposing the products of discipline as stolen centrality is that it opens up virtually unlimited fields for the social sciences. We have evidence that discipline leads to benefits, but that evidence needs to be taken on faith, once we consider there is always another way the flow of benefits to that individual or group could be explained. I don’t think we would be going too far to say that the origin of the social sciences—economics, sociology, political science, anthropology, psychology, etc.—lies in the imperative to sever the link between discipline and benefit (which would mean all the social sciences are constitutively leftist). It’s not a coincidence that the social sciences emerged as the notion of “civilization” disappeared. Once you start speaking in terms of social “structures” and “laws” you are undermining the “naïve” sense that increments in discipline generate increasingly disproportionate rewards. Leftism, then, provides a form of challenging and invigorating intellectual resentment that a civilizational politics cannot match because civilizationism (reaction or restorationism) starts with certain undeconstructable notions to be taken on faith. You can always define and analyze the social laws and structures in more complex ways, you can always challenge some previous definition and analysis and, in particular, you can always show that the previous definition or analysis still presupposed some link between discipline and benefit, and therefore was not sufficiently scientific, failing to explaining apparent discipline and apparent benefit in terms of something impersonal. I believe, of course, that the intellectual rewards of the approach I take are far greater than those of the social sciences, but, like GA more generally, could probably never be more than marginal, institutionally, granting, as it does, the irreducibility of “faith.” My approach would also be too “personalizing,” insofar as it must reject other approaches as dyscivilizational.

July 17, 2016

Originary Leftism, revisited

Filed under: GA — adam @ 2:44 pm

A while back, in a post entitled “A Unified Field Theory of the Left” I concluded with the following definition of the Left:

The Left is obedience to the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality.

I have been relying on this definition, but generally in less rigorous forms, referring to the Left as essentially an anti-civilization movement. But this more precise definition calls for further exploration. In that post, I saw the Left as drawing upon an almost universally shared resentment towards civilization but being based more precisely upon a revelation of the “fraudulence” of civilization and the barbarism it (barely) veils. So far, so good. But what I didn’t consider at the time was that this explanation of leftism grounds leftism in an important truth—which also raises the question of why leftists lie so systematically.

First of all, the truth of leftism: the civilizing process makes the implicit claim that increased capacities of deferral (discipline) will increase benefits (wealth, power and enhanced and exemplary flourishing in general). From this claim comes the imperative to buckle down and learn the arts of civilization. Now, the claim, in macro terms, is true: those social orders that have committed to the civilizing process have achieved and flourished compared to those that haven’t. On the individual level, the claim must be assessed much more cautiously: not only is it often false, insofar as individuals who have played by all the civilizing rules often fail and those who succeed often cut a lot of corners but, in principle, it can never really be proven true—how could anyone’s accomplishments be completely or even mostly attributed to their own hard work and discipline, leaving out of consideration things like native ability, luck, “connections,” and so on? For that matter, how could they ever be determined to be “accomplishments,” except circularly? From a negative standpoint, failing altogether to comply with civilized norms will almost invariably have disastrous consequences (even here there are some illustrious exceptions), but presenting things that way makes civilization more or a threat than a promise.

Now I, as a proponent of civilization and sworn enemy of the left, can calmly assess the ambivalence of the civilized person and the resentments he inevitably experiences—so, what further revelation is required for one to hear the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality—to discredit all claims that wealth, power and flourishing can be attributed to higher levels of discipline? (Keep in mind that the leftist does not feel compelled to deny such a claim categorically—just each and every particular one. You might find a leftist who feels he pays no price to agree that hard work makes success more likely; you will find them much stingier when it comes to admitting that that explains the success of anyone they can’t claim overcame some unjust obstacle.) Here are some reasons, which comprise a preliminary categorization of leftist types:

  • the promise of civilization has failed in your particular case: you, in your mind, played by the rules, worked hard, and you still failed according to some relevant measure (this can equally apply to the experience of someone you know or are familiar and sympathize with)
  • the promise of civilization has, to all appearances, succeeded in your particular case, but you really can’t be sure: you started off with some of the benefits of civilization in your pocket, so to speak, and you progressed a bit from there, or held steady, but there’s no way of knowing whether you’re living parasitically off of other’s capital; and, if there’s no way of knowing that, there’s no way of knowing whether those others were in fact living off of others’ labor and suffering, perhaps unrewarded and unrecognized labor and suffering—in other words, you have the nagging anxiety that while others might take you to represent the truth of civilization’s promises, on a “deeper” level you represent its ultimate fraudulence and disguised barbarity
  • you can see how others are blinded by their faith in the civilizing process—all those people out there doing what they’re told, getting by, believing in their right to their enjoyment of civilization’s fruits but without ever feeling a need to “do the math” and consider how much of their (really, contemptible, if you look at it too closely) “success” is, in the end, attributable to their own efforts; and some others who you can see really just exploited some mechanisms already in place to “get ahead”—you see something all these others don’t, that the closer you look the less connection you see between effort and accomplishment, and between celebrated accomplishments and worthy ones—you might say that this revelation, which in less political orders (or for less reactive characters) might lead one to philosophical reflection and a higher form of self-discipline, resolves the anxiety of the previously described uncertainty by making it a generally applicable dogmatic claim with which you can prosecute others (an enormous amount of youth culture goes into cultivating this sentiment, that everyone who gets ahead either cheats or is secretly miserable, and the only honorable position is the alienated one outside of it all—an extension of Gnosticism and romanticism, of course)

Now, I think it is from this last group that the real leftist leadership is drawn from: all those people who don’t see how fraudulent the whole “system” is must be made to see—none of their illusions can be left undisturbed. This is the source of the fanaticism and systematic lying of the left—nothing is forbidden, morality must be subordinated to the higher imperative of making them see—it is precisely that evidence that seems to justify the system that must be debunked. To feel you’ve glimpsed a crucial truth that everyone else (aside from a privileged few, whom you start seeking out and with whom you cement this sense of superiority to “everyone else”) is blind to, and blind to because too self-satisfied and cowardly to see the underpinnings of their comfortable life—this is an extremely powerful form of motivation because you, the recipient and guardian of this revelation, should be at the center, but all these petty, small minded people think they’re at the center—and “society” seems to agree with them. This last group comes from those in the second group who get radicalized (the remainder in the second group are sympathizers and donors), for whatever reason, while those in the first group provide the shock troops of the left. These three groups could, in principle, include everyone in a civilized order, so it’s not surprising that the Left runs up the numbers it does. To resist the Leftist imperative, you would have to understand the rewards of civilization as intrinsic to the discipline itself—that understanding is ultimately truer than the Left’s, but also the most easily forgotten—part of that intrinsic reward is the very power of discernment that enables you to start noticing its intangibility and therefore start questioning it.

I remember reading, many years ago, an interview with Noam Chomsky in which the interviewer asked him how he came by his political convictions. Chomsky traced it back to high school, where he couldn’t understand why everyone in his school cared so much about whether their school teams defeated the other schools’ teams. Why should the mere fact that you happen to go to West Central High rather than East Central High (perhaps because your parents happened to buy a house a couple of blocks away from where they could have just as easily bought one) mean that you should be elated when West Central’s basketball team defeats East Central’s (especially since you’re not even on the team)? Are West Central’s players more worthy—is there any objective reason to prefer them to East Central’s? Just step back and look at all that idiotic cheering in the stands. Etc. OK—all this is fine—every halfway intelligent high schooler gets this feeling of the absurdity of the loyalties, the groupings, the forced enthusiasms, the cliques, etc., in the name of some vague sense that “we’re really all the same” and “there are much more important things out there.” But most high schoolers have other feelings as well—you’re friends with someone on a team, or you’re friends with someone who is friends with someone on the team, and so you know a bit about what’s going on and maybe it’s interesting; you realize that all this cheering might just be a pretext for getting out of the house Friday night, or having a couple of big parties, but you don’t mind having the pretext; rooting for the team makes the game a lot more exciting; it’s a way to meet members of the opposite sex, and the popular girls and guys don’t like people who just think everything is stupid; and, in general, it’s more interesting and fun to have all this stuff going on. So, the Chomskyian intuition is there, but it ends up informing an occasional ironic stance—it consumes you, and you become a Chomskyian, when you feel compelled to preserve that intuition, to elevate it above all other intuitions, and therefore to wage war against all those other feelings suggesting that maybe all the “mindless” rooting isn’t so bad after all. That you have that intuition more sharply or clearly than others, that you have an obligation to increase its sharpness and clarity, to make others see it, turns it into the lynchpin of your identity. You declare eternal war on the kids who are popular through no merit of their own, on the adults who cater to that unearned privilege, and on all the other kids who would like to be like, or be close to, the popular ones—but when you achieve a sufficient degree of political discipline and sophistication, you realize how valuable to the cause it is to “turn” as many of the enemy as you can, and with the exception of those who have remembered the intrinsic value of discipline, they are all potentially vulnerable, so you start to look for weak links—where is the presumed causal relation between effort and reward especially tenuous? Something that seems earned (even something so simple as the right of police not to be killed) can surely be made an example of privilege. And once you’re not doing anything other than looking for those weak links, you are a full-fledged leftist.

So, it’s not quite accurate to say that leftism is anti-civilization—leftism is opposed to any imaginable civilization in the name of an imaginary civilization cleansed of its discontents. And, in practice, opposing any imaginable civilization means sanctioning and encouraging the most uninhibited rage against existing civilization. There are fewer and fewer leftists willing to compromise the imaginary for the sake of the imaginable, probably because of an end of history sense of invulnerability. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have spoken this way on occasion: we can still nuke them back to hell if we want, can’t we? In that case, nothing can really ever be that serious—we’ve got our ace in the hole. But it’s virtually axiomatic that a sense of invulnerability significantly increases vulnerabilities. There’s no easier target than the guy who thinks no one would ever take a shot at him.

July 16, 2016

Automated Stratification

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:43 am

Eric Gans’s latest Chronicle, “The Administrative State and the Victimocracy” raises a set of interrelated questions which GA urgently needs to turn its attention to. I’m going to focus on the following two paragraphs in particular:

I believe that the victimary arrogance of the Left at the present moment is dependent on a factor that I have discussed several times without pretending to be able to calculate its quantitative effect: that of modern, intelligent automation, which as I have claimed is in the process of effecting the first essential separation within humanity by severing the common symbolic link (as expressed in religious and civil ritual) among the social classes. For the first time, a whole segment of the population, more or less the “Belmont” of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, has been detached from the “common folk,” not simply by privilege as in the past, but by the ability to use symbols. GA takes this more seriously than the workaday anthropologies we live with because GA takes seriously the definition of humans as users of language. In particular the split occurs most sharply in language’s least “humanistic,” most narrowly symbolic function: the pure empty tokens of mathematics, the ability to manipulate which becomes increasingly a qualification for the higher forms of work (“STEM”). Perhaps (true) affirmative action can work to bring the two sides together, but as Murray’s book, which deliberately excludes racial minorities from consideration, suggests, this is certainly not to be solved by attacking “white privilege” or putting (often black) policemen on trial for “racist” brutality.

The point is to understand that the heat of all these resentful thoughts is meant to make us forget the “cold light of reason,” which tells us that only some as yet undiscovered form of human engineering will make those currently in the (former) “working class” capable of handling the symbolic activities of tomorrow’s industrial society. Without falling into economic determinism, I think one can say that the world’s current ills, from radical Islam to the sclerosis of the administrative state in Europe and increasingly, the US, all in one way or another reflect the persistent inequalities that depend more and more not on “privilege” but on qualifications, and ultimately, on native abilities, albeit enhanced by the more nourishing childhoods characteristic of the Belmont class. Huxley’s Brave New alpha-epsilon categories, contemporaries of the word robot invented for Capek’s RUR, seem to be proving eerily prophetic. Save, of course, that as bearers of the moral model of reciprocal human equality, we cannot condone a hierarchy of this sort, so that when it manifests itself in some domain of the social order, it must be denied by all means at our disposal.

This account certainly helps us to address the problem of victimary resentment more dispassionately—there is, in fact, a dramatically new and potentially uniquely intractable form of inequality, even if it’s not the inequality the victimary activists complain about. This stratification within the symbolic function may not explain the gender/sexuality wing of the victimocracy, but, then again, that wing might be largely parasitic on the racial one (with” race” defined broadly to include, as the victimocrats insist, opposing cultures and civilizations, such as the West vs. Islam). The anti-immigration (and, I wouldn’t say “white nationalist” but rather “anti-anti-white,” while I maintain the hope that “albaphobia” might someday catch on) website VDARE has one writer who regularly posts on advances in automation—the immediate point is the lessening necessity for importing cheap labor, but there is also a vague sense in many postings that automation might be as destructive to the native working class as immigration itself. And the increase in assortative mating—doctors used to marry nurses, now they marry other doctors, businessmen and lawyers used to marry secretaries, now they marry their peers, etc.—is leading to a heritable class and even at least quasi-racial stratification corresponding to the stratification between those capable and those incapable of advanced “symbolic analysis.”
While this economic stratification is the bigger civilizational problem, I think the furious victimary resentment addresses a different side of automation. Automation has the potential to reduce resentments insofar as it makes it possible to take all kinds of decisions out of human hands (or, at least, remove those decisions to more distant hands). If a police department can have its computer experts do increasingly nuanced mathematical analyses on crimes rates and perpetrators in specific neighborhoods, at specific times, then crime fighting depends less and less upon the judgments and intuitions of police officers—you can stop someone and question him because you can show that he is, according to calculations that can be checked, 7.4x more likely to commit a crime than the guy you didn’t stop—rather than stopping him because he seemed like a “troublemaker.” The same goes for banks loans, school admissions and hiring—all these decisions can be taken out of human hands, and “inputs” (measurable capacities) correlated with increasing accuracy to “outputs” (performance). Since everyone can guess that the results will not conform to egalitarian fantasies, it is this component of automation that is intolerable, and must be resisted at all costs. It’s also harder to rationalize resistance, though—rather than the cop on the beat, or the loan officer at the bank, or the manager at the plant, being “racist,” the entire system of symbolic analysis must somehow be racist—and, since you can’t develop a better, “non-racist” mathematical analysis, the racism embedded in the “inputs” must take on an almost mystical omnipresence, a taint which we can’t even really explain much less cleanse ourselves of. And the victimocrats are not the ones developing the COMPSTATS; the victimocrats are those with humanities and social science degrees that enable them to “prove” that the inequities lie deep within reality itself, and the STEM people are not equipped to fight back on this politicized terrain. It is here that the real battle against the victimocracy must be fought, in the name of the liberation of the algorithm and the recognition of human difference.

The problem of automation has existed since the beginning of industrialization, but it may be becoming more critical. It used to be that each new wave of automation would destroy whole sectors of the economy, laying off large parts of the workforce, but the increase in the size of markets and the entrance of whole new populations to the workforce and market as consumers would create the number of jobs needed to replace those lost. In the end, there would be significant displacement, which would generate some short-term political effects, but since the resentments always came from a “backward” minority of the workforce, those effects were never particularly consequential. We have been conditioned to assume it will always work like this, but maybe it won’t. Marx’s main argument for communism was not the injustice of the exploitation of workers, but the projected consequences of the unlimited technological development capitalism makes possible—if all you need to provide everyone with the food, clothing, shelter and entertainment they need is to flip a switch, what would be the logic of paying people to work? In order to maintain the wage-labor system, you would have to, perversely, deprive people of what you could readily provide them free of cost. Buckminster Fuller argued that free education up to the highest levels was cost-effective because if you educated 1,000 people for free, at least one out of those 1,000 would invent something that would pay for the education (and more) of the other 999. His colleague, Marshall McLuhan, anticipated that we would soon be paying people to go to school, as if the process of learning itself, presumably within a more “rational” educational system, would be wealth generating. The fact that the notion of a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens has been taken seriously by politicians of both the right and the left since the Nixon Administration (which got the idea, I think, from libertarian economist Milton Friedman) demonstrates that belief in the possibility of a “post-work” society persists despite (or because of) the poor performance of the actual economy according to conventional measures. (No doubt it is easy to call those measures into question—why does everyone need to work, in which case why should we worry about high levels of unemployment? Why does the economy need to “grow” a certain amount? Etc.)

But what renders all such perhaps quite realistic speculation utopian is a good look at our fellow men and women. What would all these people do if they didn’t have to work, or find some way, even illicit, to acquire money? For the Marxists and “visionaries” like McLuhan and Fuller it was possible to imagine that what held us back was the “alienation” caused by institutions that were either oppressive or designed for a “scarcity” rather than “abundance” society—redesign the institutions, and hitherto unimaginable human potential would flourish. A more rigorous and sober anthropology would considerably dampen this enthusiasm. Hannah Arendt had the more prescient question: would would happen to a society whose entire economic and moral order is based on “labor” when labor is no longer necessary? What would everyone do if they didn’t have to work? Write commentaries on Plato? Develop Generative Anthropology? Invent new “apps”? Play Pokemon Go? I think Fuller’s numbers might be on the mark—about one out of a thousand would do one or more of the first three, and the other 999 the last. In that case, why go to school—why have schools? (What did Fuller think the other 999 would do?) What if the top .01% decides they don’t want to waste their time providing the necessities of life and amusements to the rest?

Yes, it will take “some as yet undiscovered form of human engineering” to answer these questions. In very broad terms, though, the answer is obvious: if we don’t rely upon a division of labor to feed, clothe, house, transport, etc., one another, then we will have to make ourselves useful to each other in new ways. We already see the beginnings of this in the new professions that have proliferated in the therapeutic age—all kinds of counseling and advice dealing with increasingly minute emotional questions and arcane areas of interest. More and more people are becoming what Peter-Solterdijk calls “trainers.” People will discover things they have to offer to others, and things they’d rather let others do for them, and it won’t necessarily depend upon native intelligence or even talent. If you managed to lost 100 pounds and get yourself in shape you are “qualified,” through a minimum of self-reflection and narrative ability, to help others do the same. The trainer enables you to construct your reality in a new way: while previously you were a victim of circumstances you can now, by identifying and modifying your own responses to those circumstances, become the master of them. The most famous exemplar of such producer’s desire is Oprah Winfrey, who has always been a punch line for high and even middle brow types while being revered by precisely those most threatened by our increasingly intelligently symbolic order. So, the solution to automated stratification is the spread of producer’s desire. (If you’re supporting yourself by making yourself useful to others by doing something you love, why should you care that someone else is making 1000x as much as you?) How far can such desire spread? How far would it have to spread to support a workable social order? Those are things we can’t yet know, but the fact that human nature remains rooted in mimesis and rivalry leaves open the possibility that people will continue to strongly desire to interact with and prove themselves with and against others.

July 13, 2016


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:09 pm

It is only possible to engage in peaceful activity insofar as someone protects that activity from those who would interrupt it violently—to rob or coerce or take revenge on one or more of the participants, or just for the hell of it. The participants can protect themselves, but as the predators get more sophisticated—as they specialize and hone their predatory skills—it will be hard for the participants to keep up, because they are too busy specializing in their peaceful activities to compete as self-protectors in the arms race against the predators. The law of comparative advantage suggests they will eventually farm out protection duties, either to private security or the state. Even the most primitive communities will probably delegate self-defense, except perhaps in the most extreme circumstances, to the strongest and most aggressive young men. It is probably at least as true to say that, once communities have been stratified, any peaceful activity is not only protected by but has the at least tacit permission of whoever controls, which is to say, owns, the territory upon which that activity is conducted. Much early trading was no doubt carried out between members of different communities, but it nevertheless took place somewhere, and therefore required the sanction of one or both of the sovereigns involved (for example, through treaties).

Once communities are sufficiently differentiated so that various non-ritual interactions take place regularly within a sovereign territory, the sovereign is primarily distinguishing between the peaceable and the predatory amongst his own people (“his own” in the sense of those he rules over). The sovereign is either capable of doing this, or he isn’t—if he is, then he permits all activities that he does not prevent, because he can prevent any of them; if he isn’t, then he simply isn’t sovereign, which means someone else is, or others are—perhaps some incompletely subdued Big Men are sovereign over at least parts of the territory, perhaps street gangs are sovereign over some inner city neighborhoods, etc. Now, central to liberal political thinking is that liberty or prosperity or happiness of good government (the emphasis shifts from thinker to thinker) requires limitations in sovereign power. There are certain human or civil rights that can’t be violated, or there is a constitution that prevents the government from using its power in certain ways. The problem with this approach is evident in the operations of our contemporary governments—who, exactly, decides whether the government has violated someone’s rights, or has overstepped limits placed on its exercise of power? Whoever decides is, then, sovereign. In theory, liberalism would like to situate this “ultimate” sovereignty with the “people”—but the people could only exercise this sovereignty through revolution, in which case the resultant sovereign would not exactly be the “people” but whichever party or militia manages to concentrate power in its own hands. Otherwise, the decision is made by some branch of the government itself, which means there’s a kind of shell game going on here. At higher levels of civilization, the game of ping pong between the legislature, executive and judiciary might preserve a sense of moderation and cooperation on the part of all parties, but there is nothing in this haphazard and informal distribution of powers that helps to preserve that level of civilization—on the contrary, the more power that seems to be lying around unclaimed, the more people will try and figure out how to pick it up. We go from uncertainty to uncertainty, and struggles for power come to permeate the entire social order. So, for example, we might say that, in effect, in the US the Supreme Court is sovereign insofar as it has the final word on what the executive and legislative branches do. Maybe—but that only lasts as long as some enterprising President, sensing popular winds at his (or her!) back, decides to defy the Supremes (how many divisions do they have?). Even more, the Supreme Court justices emerge from a broader judicial culture, comprised of the lower courts, the law schools, professional associations, and so on—so, must we locate sovereignty elsewhere? (Should we accept the assertion, made, I think, mostly seriously, by more than one “Reactionary” blogger, that Harvard is, in fact, sovereign?) Sovereignty in this case becomes both highly impenetrable and extremely unreliable and unstable. Maybe, indeed, sovereignty is mobile, taken up by different agencies depending upon needs and circumstance—this is an attractive idea, and I can imagine it working fairly well in small, closely knit communities, where charismatic individuals would step forth and be acknowledged by the community in emergencies. That, in fact, seems to be the model of sovereignty in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Judges, but it hardly seems transferable.

Liberal theory not only fails but fails disingenuously precisely because it allows no one to claim sovereignty even though someone must. Liberalism is extremely hostile to anyone saying something like “alright, I’m going to do what it takes to maintain order here,” even though there are obviously times when someone needs to do that. We could see liberalism as a kind of pathology, a phobia—it is possessed by the idea that if anyone ever does “take over” and impose order they will do so forever, and in unaccountable, inscrutable and terrifyingly destructive ways. I think we can describe this pathology even more precisely and more personally—that guy, that dictator, that Alpha, that Bad Daddy who takes over will stop me from doing something that I very much want to do. The fact that in a post-romantic West everyone likes to see his/her deepest desires as “subversive” feeds into this phobia. But that just means you want your deepest desires to be sovereign, and how is that supposed to work? Someone will be sovereign—the question is, is it better that we all know exactly who that is? If you say yes—the more emphatically you say yes—because the more uncertainty there is, the more the purpose of sovereignty is defeated, and the less protection we can expect for peaceful interactions, then you are led inexorably to absolutism, without all the fuzziness introduced by rights, limited and divided powers and the rest of the liberal machinery.

The biggest problem, then, is how to get someone into that position (whoever chooses that someone, if he is indeed chosen, is, at least for that moment, sovereign—so, how are they chosen)? Democracy is a proposed solution to this problem, probably prompted by the realization that monarchy cannot be separated from an inadequate selection process, far too dependent upon accidents of birth. Democracy is just a way of dividing sovereignty by providing the electorate with a kind of punctual sovereignty on election day; once the elected officials take power they are sovereign, and I am far from the first to note that what the people thought they were voting for may have very little to do with what those elected choose to do with their sovereignty. And, of course, the electorate as sovereign can do what it likes, and there is no reason to assume that what it likes bears any relation to the purposes of sovereignty in the first place. (Your good democrat will bristle at that very formulation—that someone might dare to assert that sovereignty has “essential” purposes beyond what the people would like those purposes to be—but if the sovereignty of the people, such as it is, is simply presumptive, why should the people school themselves in the preservation of sovereignty?) If the sovereign is genuinely sovereign, he can decide on matters of succession, so will we not very soon find ourselves back in a hereditary monarchy?

Since I began playing with the notion of absolutism, the problem the notion seemed to pose for me is how to integrate it with the other political/anthropological concepts I have been taking on board recently: nationalism, parrhesia, and producerism. In principle, absolutism could rule over a multinational empire; for that matter, it could break up a nation and impose some other ordering principle. And, needless to say, the absolute sovereign can quickly shut up any aspiring parrhesiac. And will an absolute sovereign not see imaginative, charismatic producerists as a threat? But I then considered that the problem might, in fact, be a solution. A successful sovereign would want all of these things. Ruling over a nation is far more likely to provide the sovereign with the “middle” (Cf., my previous post) he needs to govern as minimally as possible—not to mention the ballast a cohesive nation provides in possible conflicts with other sovereigns. (If force of circumstance requires a sovereign to incorporate alien peoples, the wiser sovereign will seek to integrate the new people into the existing one.) The producerists, meanwhile, will be the source of wealth, advice, and political and military leadership. The question of parrhesia is more difficult. It’s a democratic prejudice (confirmed, though, by 20th century dictatorships) that an absolute sovereign will suppress all criticism and deviation from the “party line.” Nothing in the concept of absolute sovereignty requires this (and, for an obvious counter-example, the absolute monarchs of early modern Europe allowed for a very rich and often dissonant artistic and religious culture). Still, some discourses will be marked as heresy and sedition and, at any rate, the sovereign will always have the absolute power to classify them as such. (Some are in even the freest and most democratic countries, but let’s leave that aside for now—these nagging “double standard” comparisons and charges of “hypocrisy” are especially irritating when we are trying to think something through.)

I will try this formulation: the more successful and secure a sovereign, the more he will allow for and embrace public criticisms of his decisions, exposures of corruption, satirical representations of powerful figures and a vigorous intellectual and artistic life. A less successful sovereign will be unsuccessful in other ways, so his oppressiveness regarding open discourse will just be part of a bigger problem; a sovereign who is less secure through no fault of his own might have good grounds for tightening the reins, and a responsible class of artists and intellectuals will tailor their works accordingly and find new ways to speak freely within the imposed limits. In the case of the failed sovereign, well, we may get to the point where he needs to be removed—there is nothing more dangerous than the revolutionary abyss of radically uncertain sovereignty than a catastrophically failing sovereign. Given the presumption in favor of absolute sovereignty, we can assume that revolutions will only take place as a last resort, and will not be carried out until the leading figures of the middle, the best judges of the status of sovereign power, have been convinced there is no other way. (Now, along with the failed sovereign we are likely to see a corrupted and compromised middle, but that doesn’t change anything—it just means the situation is worse, and we have fewer leading figures to rely upon.) Considering this possibility gives us the solution to the problem of sovereign selection and succession. A successful sovereign, who is successful because he has cultivated the middle and the producerists, and listened to the public conversations of his subjects, can be expected to choose his successor well, even if it is his own child. The leading subjects will support as best they can the less successful sovereigns, and try to shepherd the people through harder times, including reckless choices of a successor. Ultimately the salvation of order will depend upon the sovereign being persuaded by those leading subjects (and first of all allowing them to try, without any fear—although if they are indeed “leading,” they should also be courageous). As for the first post-liberal absolute sovereign—that in fact is the easiest choice, because it will be whoever is brave, resourceful, intelligent and charismatic enough to lead a lot of imperfect people through some very desperate times—and there won’t be an over-supply of candidates.

I will briefly note that I am not just building utopian castles in the sky here—or, perhaps, I should note that the point of constructing utopias has always been to find better ways of talking about what is right in front of us. You can see from my discussion that to speak in terms of absolute sovereignty as a measure of good and true order is necessarily to speak in very different ways about social interaction and order. You end up speaking much less about interests, desires and resentments as the basic elements of social order (which leads to all the liberal problems of “balancing” and the Machiavellean plans to distract through amusements, etc., and gnawing sense that continued social order depends upon a good quarter of economic growth) and much more about deferral, discipline and charisma (in Philip Rieff’s sense of the attractive power “given off” by the more disciplined). Once you commit yourself to clear and certain sovereignty, because it’s the only way of preventing resentments from splintering society, you become interested in all the ways we can expect ourselves and others to transcend those resentments through devotion to a center. When I was watching the TV mini-series The Tudors a couple of years ago, I was struck by how most of the people executed (sometimes, especially in the case of Anne Boleyn, for the craziest of reasons) on order of King Henry VIII made a point, in their speech before those assembled to witness the execution, to praise the king and implore the people to be grateful and obedient toward him. This seems outrageous to almost any modern—why, they should have declared their innocence, denounced the injustice, railed against the king, called upon the people to rise up against the tyrant (what did they have to lose, after all?)—but I found it very impressive, checked to make sure it was historically accurate, and was very grateful to the producers for including such “counter-cultural” sentiments. (They were only a generation away from some terrible violence carried out in the name of contesting the legitimacy of the king, but that they had so internalized this lesson and translated it into civic and religious terms that it informed their final act is remarkable.) I would say that overt and sustained renunciation of violence precisely when the desire to give oneself over to it is almost irresistible is the highest form of parrhesia—which means that following the discipline of parrhesia might be especially likely to lead one to absolutism.

I have always insisted that on the originary scene the assembled could not have put forth their respective gestures simultaneously. I have some very good (to my mind) reasons for doing so, but the one relevant here is that the assumption of simultaneity excludes any representation of a threat to social order on the scene itself. If everyone is an equal participant on the scene—equal in commitment, enthusiasm, understanding of the implications of what they are doing—then “anti-social” activity must be secondary and contingent, explicable in terms of specific circumstances, not a perennial threat (at most there will be resentments that are always already contained, at least within the prevailing form of order even if not the specific regime). We could assume that, ultimately, everyone really just wants a seat at the table. That’s not necessarily the case, though. If the sign was first put forth (with whatever degree of intentionality) by one, then a couple more, then a majority, then it makes sense to further infer that the final participants, those who came last, did so out of fear of a now imposing group force, or even needed to be restrained by those determined to protect the center. No one can dispute that there are lots of people who behave acceptably for fear of punishment or social approval, and really have contempt for (or simply no comprehension of) the norms in the name of which they would be subject to censure. The current relaxation of norms makes this very obvious, and is certainly why the existence of psychopaths and sociopaths has become such an interesting subject (how many are there? How can we recognize them? Where does the boundary lie between psychopathy and sociopathy and normalcy? Do they have advantages over normal people when it comes to acquiring wealth and power?). The political relation between those who live by the sign and those who live in contempt/fear of those who live by the sign is very different than the political relation between those assumed to be bound by roughly symmetrical reciprocity. If you are working with the latter model, you will find divided and uncertain sovereignty much less of a concern (and maybe even a source of social vibrancy) than if you are working with the former.

July 11, 2016

The High-Low Alliance: Toward a Middlist Absolutist Politics

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:53 pm

Steve Sailer speaks often of the alliance of the wealthiest and most powerful with the poor and marginalized against the middle—what he calls the high-low alliance (and sometimes “the coalition of the fringes”—what we could call the victimocracy). The Reactionary Futures blog, which argues for what we might call a kind of political absolutism (in both the sense that it prioritizes power in analyzing social relations and considers centralization and certainty of sovereignty the only means of social stability) also argues strenuously in favor of this analytic framework—indeed, Reactionary Futures takes this very literally, making a case for seeing the foundations (Ford, Carnegie, etc.) as the central political agents of the past 100 years. The power and relevance of this framework is pretty obvious, but the reasons for it, and the best way of accounting for it, is not immediately clear. Why would the “highs” (the billionaires, the corporations, Wall Street, the media) prefer an alliance with the lows rather than the middle? On the surface, it looks like the SJWs are driving the agenda—the corporations seem to be scrambling to figure out how to avoid boycotts and protests—but the theory of the high-low alliance complicates this picture considerably. Indeed, Reactionary Futures argues, fairly convincingly I think, that the civil rights movement was not some spontaneous demand for justice, or an inevitable step in the path of social progress but, rather, instigated and funded by the foundations (the blogger makes a similar case for the leading intellectual movements of the later 20th century, from left to right—differences between which RF considers virtually irrelevant). Even so, why would the foundations support these social movements? Why not get behind the segregationists? Some kind of somewhat objective analysis of the interests of the founders must lie behind these choices. Also, we must be able to distinguish between intended and unintended consequences of the foundations’, or the “highs” in general, historical interventions—unless we want to attribute omniscience and omnipotence to them, which is always just a way of making it easier to get to the conclusions you want. Are the highs against the middle—do they consider the middle a threat or obstacle (to what?)—or do they simply bypass or ignore it for some other reason?

RF seems to see the funding of the lows by the highs as a means of promoting disorder so as to create the need for order—a need the elite can then satisfy, thereby accumulating more power. For RF, this kind of strategy is necessary because modern society has produced a separation between actual power and formal power—real economic and cultural power is not directly recognized as political power, and so economic and cultural (ultimately, according to RF, also political) power has to operate indirectly to reach its actual level of power. A more absolutist approach would eliminate the difference between economic, cultural and political power (making it all directly political), thereby making power coherent and also requiring that those with power also take responsibility for their exercise thereof. Of course, the best example of such singular sovereignty was the absolute monarchy of the late Middle Ages/early modern period. All property belongs to the monarchy, and all private property is, in fact, “lent” by the monarch (this is ultimately, if extremely indirectly and disingenuously, the case today as well, despite the furious attempts of liberal ideology to deny it—think for a few minutes of all the ways the state could take your property if it found a “compelling,” i.e., any, reason to do so). It was the rise of modern property, liberalism and capitalism that multifurcated property, thereby producing the competing power centers.

That the relatively autonomous power centers are competing with each other is the key to the solution of the problem—the power center (the progressive billionaire, the media conglomerate, the corporation) that is furthest in advance of generating disorder is also the one most likely to present itself as the most credible candidate to lead the reordering. The highs, then, are recruiting foot soldiers from among the lows to gain an edge against their rivals. To that extent, the “middle” is incidental. But the middle is a problem because the middle is comprised of the participants of the originary nomos, or land apportionment, their descendants, and those who have bought into later reapportionments. Even if we grant RF’s absolutism, the sovereign power will (I may very well be departing from RF here) rely upon the middle: the sovereign’s orders must be conveyed, the sovereign must be kept apprised of where his attention is most needed, and, above all, the sovereign must not be lured into governing any more intrusively than absolutely necessary (because that allows it to be captured by various fractional interests)—for all of these lines of political power to remain open, a middle of property owners, intelligently loyal to the sovereign, that disciplines itself far more than it requires external discipline, is indispensable. A stable, secure sovereign would realize this, and nurture the middle. But for rivals for power among the highs in a decentered system, the middle is an unwelcome hindrance, a drag, because catering to the middle allows some other section of the elite to plug directly into the more volatile and manipulable lows and fringes.

Meanwhile, if the middle is not the center of the sovereign’s attention—if there is not a relation of reciprocal deference between them—and the model to which at least the better of the lows seek to assimilate, the middle itself is bereft and adrift, pulled apart by the more exciting lifestyles of the highs and lows (is white guilt more a fear of not adhering to norms of equality adequately, or envy of the freedom and presumed authenticity of the lows and fringes?). RF’s political hopes lie in the emergence of great men, or perhaps an enlightened section of the elites, who can seize sovereignty and initiate a process of restoration. One can laugh at these ideas, or call them fascist, but such responses would just be the last gasps of a dying consumerism and can be disregarded. My own disagreement with RF is that I think the process would have to work the other way: a restored middle would generate the imperative for sovereign certainty—depending upon what would be involved in the restoration of the middle (an eventuality I really have no more right to be confident in than RF does in his preferred scenario), I can easily imagine a middle that is tired of the endless BS and sh*t tests that pass for democracy, liberalism, republicanism, equality, human rights and all the rest, and is ready for some absolutism. Maybe the often touted “non-partisanship” of the “radical center” should be taken seriously—it could very well be that the middle just wants reasonable and necessary laws, applied and enforced reliably, fairly, and consistently, and the order that would follow, and doesn’t care so much about the process by which this is accomplished.

From a pedagogical, rhetorical and propagandistic standpoint, “absolutism” has a lot to recommend itself in the middlistic struggle against the high-low alliance. In response to just about any complaint of the left it is possible to simply ask whether the laws governing the case are clear, are they—can they be—enforced with transparency and regularity, will proposed reforms increase or diminish such clarity, regularity and transparency, and so on. There are good laws, the need for which is easily understood and which are therefore easily enforced, in which case officials who fail to do so are derelict; and there are bad laws, which are bad because they can’t be easily understood and enforced. A determined absolutism could demonstrate systematically that what the victimocrats want is lawlessness and disorder. That’s all—not equality, not fairness, not reciprocity, not truth, not recognition, not justice. The attacks on white patriarchal Western heterosexual bourgeoisness are concentrated attacks on everything that stands for order, which is to say a nomos that has proven more capable than others of transmitting and enhancing its founding order. The lows who are dragged in as cannon fodder in the rivalries of the elites can’t, of course, know what they want to result from their endless agitation; but the truth is the highs really don’t either—the convergence of all forms of power among the globalizing ruling class is actually tending towards absolutism (a perfect symbol of that being Mark Zuckerberg’s eagerly assenting to Angela Merkel’s plea that he do something about all that anti-migrant sentiment on Facebook) while, paradoxically, undermining any possibility for sovereignty by building that power on massive infusions of dyscivilizational elements to the societies they wish to rule.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Powered by WordPress