Monthly Archives: November 2018

Hostages, Proxies, and Moles

One extremely important contribution made by the alt-right and neo-reaction has been the enormous enrichment of the vocabulary we have available for studying social actors and actions. Neo-reaction has retrieved the ancient (caste) distinction between soldiers, priests and merchants; the alt-right has put nations and races back on the agenda, and has also contributed a rich conceptualization of socio-sexual hierarchies, the most fully developed I know of being Vox Day’s (Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, Omegas, Sigmas). Both tendencies have brought back “thick” understandings of male-female differences. Liberalism flattens everyone out into “citizens,” which is perhaps a further development of the absolutist monarchs’ flattening of everyone into “subjects.” Of course, liberalism has seen its own efflorescence of group designations: capitalist, worker, middle class, new middle class, salaried vs. wage earners, plus professional classifications and, of course, all the political differentiations. But the liberal designations just “happen”—we notice them as statistical distributions after the fact, and they have nothing to do with decisions made or founding events. No obligations follow from any of them. Even the supposedly freely chosen political identities turn out to be almost completely grounded in some combination of economic, ethnic, gender, regional, familial status. (Tell me your race or ethnicity, whether or not you are married with children, or hope to be at an early age, and I’m already ¾ of the way towards guessing what you “believe” about most “issues” with a pretty high degree of accuracy.)

The socio-sexual hierarchies may present themselves pretty clearly and consistently in high school, where what differentiation there is almost directly elicits varying dominance tendencies among males and conformist tendencies among females, and no one is really responsible for much, but in the adult world such hierarchies are mediated by the professions, or the disciplines. What makes one an alpha on Wall Street will not gain one the same respect in a scientific community, as an author in the world of publishing, or on a neighborhood watch committee. It would be very interesting to do a longitudinal study tracing men’s (in particular) position in dominance hierarchies throughout their lives, and across the various activities they participate in—no doubt there would be quite a bit of continuity, but high school reunions must hold some surprises. So, it seems that the caste-like differentiations, which follow very directly from what one would have to do in assembling a team, must be the foundational ones. The socio-sexual hierarchies, then, would to some extent determine whether one becomes a soldier, priest or merchant, but would then primarily show up within those groupings. Of course, we need not assume that these specific castes themselves are the last word—it’s just that this points in the direction of the needed inquiry. What we are looking for in such group differentiations is resistance to the equalization pushed by turnover at the center. Ultimately, we would want grammatical definitions—that is, one’s “vocation” would be identified through one’s relation to ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives. Most obviously, if one’s greatest aptitude is to obey imperatives, one is a soldier; to issue imperatives, an officer, ultimately a ruler (the alpha among officers). Beyond that it will get more complex.

It is belonging to a team that makes sense of qualitative “identities.” Teams have captains, and most team sports have more central figures, the one who controls the ball or initiates the action. Liberalism can’t do much with such an approach, because a team needs to be very clear about qualifications and roles. Imagine a wide receiver insisting on the “right” to play fullback. But if social orders are teams (really, teams within teams), what’s the game? It’s easy to get tripped up on that question, because it implies the existence of some external, “Archimedean” point from which one could “choose” among different games, different ways of “winning.” But we can always ask the questioner what game he’s playing in asking the question. Or what leverage within some other game he expects from that move. We’re always immersed in games, that is, and all we can do is solicit and elicit new moves within them. The new moves might eventually become new games. Of course, someone will come up to you and say “life is serious!” or “look at what’s happening—this is no game!” To “gamify” such moves is then an important act of deferral: yes, I can see there is real danger, people might get hurt, maybe they’re getting hurt, there’s no time to lose—still, though, the more we place people in clear-cut roles where they can show what they are made of, the more we find the right measures of tacit and explicit cooperation; in other words, the more team-like we are, the better we’ll handle the emergency. (And then the alphas, betas, gammas, etc., will step up, or step down, or step off in their own ways.)

But there’s still something missing in all this. What happens once the team is exposed to disruptions? This must happen even if only for internal reasons, such as the team’s own successes, and the new problems they generate, and the team’s need to replenish and reproduce itself. At each point along the way, there might be reasons to question decisions made by the captain, decisions with no clear precedent. Exacerbating such potential pitfalls is the reliance of one team upon many other teams. A government is essentially a team mediating between other teams. Sometimes a government is like a referee; sometimes it is more like the major leagues recruiting from the minors; sometimes it has to lead a team of teams against some insubordinate team. Insofar as it is like a referee, which is the case insofar as it runs a justice system, any lapses will be a signal to the players to enter the government team and tip the scale in their favor. So, now we have antagonisms between teams, and members of one team infiltrating other teams. Teams will aggregate into mega-teams. This creates more possible resentments that could be leveraged within one team on behalf of another.

In the midst of the many stresses placed on a team, the coherence of the team will depend upon how highly it values its members. I mean “value” in a very literal sense: what will the team spend or risk to protect a particular member? We could think of a spectrum of possibilities here, where at one end is a team in which all the members are interchangeable and easily replaced; at the other end, not only is each player highly specialized and impossible to replace, but the set of relations built among team members could not be restored if one of the members is removed. In any complex society, there will be more of the former type than the latter, but the kind of complex society you have will be determined by which type of team sets the tone. A centered social order will depend on irreplaceables, and will want more of them; a decentered order, or one with a rapid turnover at the center, will want more interchangeables. Liberalism is essentially a process of pulverizing irreplaceables into interchangeables. In fact, that’s how you get all those new “statistical” identities in the first place.

Irreplaceables are high value targets. That is, they are very useful as hostages. The centrality of hostage taking in honor societies cannot be overestimated. Hostages are involved in the most mundane practices. Diplomatic intercourse in ancient kingdoms required an exchange of high value hostages. In honor societies, hostages are highly priced because they signify the value of the patriarch—if a hostage is not returned, the capability of the captain to protect his team is compromised, and seen to be compromised. This means everyone is ultimately a hostage, or just waiting to be one. The reason why a patriarch will feel compelled to kill a dishonored daughter is because her dishonor—even if she was raped, which only means she was allowed to be in an unprotected position where that was possible—shames him as protector. She was a hostage, even if this didn’t become explicit until she was dishonored. Post-honor teams consider their members irreplaceable because the team performs some essential function, but no team, and certainly no team of teams, i.e., no government, can ever be once and for all post-honor (and irreplaceability in functional terms is always relative and diminishing). Why is it an issue when a single American is held hostage by some terrorist group, when 50,000 people, or however many, are killed in automobile accidents every year, etc.? Because the investment in redeeming the hostage is a marker of the coherence of the team.

So, “hostage” is an “identity” that must be added to or supplement soldier, priest, merchant, and alpha, beta, and so on. We are all hostages in potentia, to all of the different teams we are members of. The flip side of being a hostage is that you, as an individual, can shame the group through your actions, which is a way of offering yourself up as a hostage to other teams. The captain is then faced with the choice of redeeming you as a hostage (“he is one of ours, after all, you’ll have to come and take him”) or expelling him (letting the other team do with him what they will). The first approach, all things being equal, implies a hostile relation to other teams, while the second approach implies a willingness to police within your own borders in the interest of mutual amity. Hostage taking is central to political warfare today. Each side attacks someone on the other side for doing or saying something that can be framed as shameful, presumably for some audience not directly implicated in either team (or, an audience made up of members of the team insofar as they are also members of other teams). You then dare the other team to protect the hostage or cut him loose. Protecting him means you put more members out on a limb, and they may be taken hostage; but cutting him loose may encourage more hostage taking as well.

It seems to me that hostage taking is closely related to the use of “proxies,” which is such a crucial concept in Moldbuggian neo-absolutism. The high uses the low as proxies against the middle. Let’s see if the concept of hostage taking can enrich our understanding of the process. To activate a proxy, you need a group, or a team. In order to turn the team into a proxy, you need to interfere with its exchange system—and exchange systems within groups work primarily on the gift and honor model. Members of that team get humiliated by members of another team. This lowers their value on the team—if they are humiliated enough, it’s not worth it trying to redeem them. The way to leverage the team as a proxy is to elevate the value of the humiliated members, to redeem them as hostages by making their humiliation shameful, not for the team to whch they belong, but for the team from which the humiliators come. This can only be done by the “highs,” i.e., an external and more powerful group which has, for example, the means of publicizing instances of humiliation and framing them as shameful, pressuring the team to repudiate them, that is, refuse to pay ransom in added scrutiny of the team. It even becomes possible to induce members of the targeted “middle” group to offer themselves as hostages, by allowing their value to be determined by the team from which the humiliated come, which really means determined by those with the spotlight to shine on (or turn away from) all of these doings. The humiliated ones then acquire the highest value, which they can leverage within their team and on behalf of their team. Within this economy, the interchangeables become irreplaceables.

Much of this is clearly outside of the control of any individual, but the best way to lessen one’s chance of being reduced to the option of becoming a low value hostage or puppetized proxy is to become a mole. A mole on behalf of the center. Every discipline employs a kind of cover; even its normal members are under cover, which is to say playing a role, wearing a costume, etc. Deferral is itself mole-like—you set aside your desires and resentments, which means you act as someone who has redeemed oneself from proclivities that make it easy to take you hostage (and would also make you a dispensable hostage). You make yourself a higher value hostage by hiding your value in making yourself irreplaceable to those who would protect you but interchangeable for those who would take you. As a mole for the center, you find signs of irreplaceability behind signs of interchangeability.

The most obvious example of “molarity” is leftist entryism, whereby a traditional institution is infiltrated and transformed into a progressive front. This describes pretty much every institution in the contemporary world. This kind of entryism involves leveraging the institution’s rules against itself. The institution has rules that implement some higher, meta-rules (academic freedom in the name of the search for truth); but the rules exclude (that’s not really “academic” work), so the meta-rules can be invoked to subvert the rules (your definition of “academic” excludes new, path-breaking inquiry). In enough cases the charge will be plausible enough, and sometimes even true, so as to confer the benefit of the doubt on new attacks. In the end, “academic” is given a new meaning. In hostage-taking terms, what happens here, at least in the initial stages, is that the activist/entrepreneur takes some member of the team hostage, while simultaneously offering herself up as a hostage. The team member (who has been “critiqued”) can be demoted in some way, while the entrant can be expelled. It’s a long game, a trial and error process—over time, if the game is played right, enough prominent team members get demoted and enough entryists are redeemed. At a certain point the entryists are in, and can dispense with the pretense of playing by the old rules, at least for internal transactions—for external messaging, it might be necessary to keep up the pretense indefinitely.

Centerist molarity replaces the meta-rules with infra-rules. Never, ever, conduct battles on the terrain of the meta-rules, however tempting it may be to defend the cause of truth, justice, freedom, beauty, God, the good. These are all central words, so the point is not that they should or could be forgotten or expunged—they just can’t be the object of a direct contest. Molarity on behalf of the center constructs practices that externalize the practices of the team you join. You show them what they’re actually doing in a way they may not exactly appreciate, but that at least some will find revelatory and compelling. You offer them ways of being more competent by showing how their reliance on some skewed version of a meta-rule interferes with some practice they’re trying to construct. This is actually a way of deferring hostage taking—you try and make everyone more irreplaceable, and you try to make the team itself more irreplaceable for as many other teams as possible. You work on producing interchangeable means of making more irreplaceables. Of course, this ends up making us all emissaries, which is to say self-delivered hostages of each other.

Crowding Out the Political

The best way to replace the liberal order would be one modeled on the paradox of identity. We all know this one: you have, e.g., a ship, and you replace one plank, and then another breaks so you replace that one. And so on. At what point is it no longer the “same” ship? Of course, this paradox is meant to examine our assumptions regarding “identity.” So, it’s still the same ship insofar as it’s still called the S.S. Minnow. Is it more the same ship if the material used to replace it part by part is closer to the original (the same kind of wood, or wood from the same stock)? (What if the ship looks so different that people refuse to call it the Minnow, or laugh when the owner does so?) If it ceases to be the same, at what point does this happen? The 378thplank? The 517th? Why, exactly? Such boundary questions occur across the board—when does a hill become a mountain (the “heap paradox”)? We have to name or nominate things but the things are not obliged to conform to our labels. Such paradoxes can become sterile academic exercises, but they can become very interesting when how to call a thing implicates interests and elicits conflicts.

So, when would a liberal order no longer be a liberal order? The ideal would be for the question not to be asked too widely until the answer was already “now.” After all, the assumption that all political intentions be widely telegraphed and explicitly stated is itself a liberal one that liberalism itself never abides by. No one is under any obligation to openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their aims, their views, their tendencies, and meet the fairy tale of authoritarianism with a manifesto of the party itself. It may be better to replace one plank at a time, and at the same time stockpile nicely prepared wood and devise some better names for various institutions, offices and practices, names perhaps to be used informally, satirically at first (memed into existence) but eventually to be “baptized” once the existing names are laughed out of existence. Where there is now liberal, let there be authority. If we itemize all the various elements of the existing order that are specifically liberal, approach them analytically, that is, break them down into their elements, we can identify where leverage lies. For example, does it make more sense to try and eliminate elections, or to render their results as irrelevant as possible (in which case they may continue but become vestigial)? How relevant are their results now? What gets decided byelections? What gets decided throughthe electoral process? What does the electoral process allow to be decided behind the scenes? How does the electoral process nevertheless shape what is behind the scenes so as to advantage some power centers over others? The point is to determine how the democratic system undermines authority, chains of command, competence, discipline and tradition, and to interfere with that process, to make it a less promising (more compromised) vehicle for those who benefit from, empower themselves through, higher levels of anarchy and chaos. The proper institutional “fix” will follow, more as a coup de grace than an apocalyptic triumph.

In other words, we crowd out the political. By “political,” I mean the assumption that nothing can be done without stimulating opposition. If someone wants to do something X way, we can’t proceed until we’ve heard from someone who wants to do it Y way. If no one actually wants to argue for Y, we must conjure it into existence. If you’re thinking politically, you see, e.g., a Congressional district where the incumbent regularly gathers 80% of the vote and stays in office for 40 years, and you think, not “these people must agree on most important things, must be happy with those who represent them, must get along quite well, and probably don’t think politics should consume their lives”; no, you think “this is awful, authoritarian, totalitarian, conformist—these people are not genuinely being represented because a false consensus is being imposed upon them.” So, the goal is to turn the 80/20 district into a 51/49 one. How do you do that? Find small disagreements, about things people don’t consider that important, and turn them into big disagreements about issues of existential survival. Political entrepreneurs will ply the margins and figure out exactly where is the particular arrangement of antagonisms that will get them to 51%. This is pretty much all that politics is comprised of, which is why so much of it is patently fake, especially the part about politicians promising to set aside the politics and cross over the aisle to get things done. Even worse, the process covers for and enables the very institutional dysfunctions that produce it—there’s nothing that can’t be politicized, which benefits those who are best at deploying their current market share and access to political leverage to further pulverize power and gather up its bits.

The 80/20 to 51/49 example is useful because it helps us to see exactly what kinds of attitudes, ideas and behaviors we would have to crowd out to marginalize and eventually eliminate the political. I think that some of my recent discussions of morality, ethics and aesthetics will help us in theorizing or modeling practices that identify, counter and disable those attitudes, ideas and behaviors. Ethics involves the maintenance of some discipline or practice asthatdiscipline or practice—what makes “medicine” medicine, what makes “chess” chess, what makes “governing” governing? There’s an ethics of conversation—what makes this conversation the conversation that it is, and what is involved in sustaining it? The way we speak about ethical questions is in terms of the difference or oscillation between the meaning of an act for the actor and its meaning for fellow participants and/or spectators and/or “clients.” If I’m teaching a class, would other teachers recognize what I’m doing as “teaching a class” or does it seem to them something else, like, say, therapy, activism, or performance? What about the students, and then those assessing students (say in other classes for which mine was a prerequisite)? Genuine teaching should produce genuine students who recognize it as such, and assessment practices should be generated by the effect or impact aimed by a genuine pedagogy, but, of course, all these elements of the practice can be out of alignment with each other, and various “inputs” (unprepared students, market-derived assessment criteria, etc.) can make them even more misaligned. In that case, “ethics” concerns realigning these elements of the practice or discipline, and that entails retrieving its origin, as a practice created in the midst of other practices so as to elicit and produce certain capacities that couldn’t be acquired otherwise.

If ethics is centered upon some good to be obtained, morality defers another kind of centering—the violent centering involved in sacrificial practices. A sacrifice is an attempt to influence a deity by offering some exchange; we don’t think we engage in such practices anymore, but we do. Some sacrificial practices seem innocuous enough, maybe even elevating—promising God, for example, that if he gets you out of this jam, that you’ll treat your kids better, or stop drinking, or whatever (something God presumably wants you to do)—as long as you keep the promise, of course. But if you think such exchanges can make things good with God, you will see your practices as accumulating such objects of potential exchange. Everything and everyone is a potential object of exchange. When there is a crisis, which is to say when “everything” seems to be at stake, your inclination will be to seek out the most valuable object of exchange, so as to ensure the crisis is relieved. Along with your fellow sacrificial participants you will choose whomever seems most misaligned with the system as the most likely cause of the crisis and therefore the most suitable sacrifice, and you will project onto that sacrificial victim the actions and motivations needed to justify his expulsion.

So, morality involves first of all refusing and resisting such practices. The more moral one is, the more moral some community is, the more it identifies markers and tendencies towards sacrificial practices, and replaces those tendencies with other practices aimed at determining which intentional practices lead to which results and which habits lead to which intentional practices. The causes of the crisis are therefore located within the community, within its mimetic desires and rivalries, and institutions and norms are established so as to discover those rivalries as early and defer them as quickly and decisively as possible. These institutions are therefore the ones in which ethics becomes the central question—this is the case even for seemingly amoral practices, like those of science and medicine. Once we realize that some form of defilement or ritual transgression is not the cause of the disease, we are free to inquire into what the causes actually are. Once we stop looking for the ways God has marked out evil doers through some kind of disability or abnormality, we can take responsibility for determining what counts as evildoing and constructing procedures for proving and punishing it. And as we get better at tracing webs of human intention and causality, the we can respond to misfortunes suffered as a result of no action of the victim with kindness rather than horror. At the same time, it is in ethical breakdowns that moral questions become immediate and urgent: when we know longer know what counts as “law,” “justice,” “health,” “knowledge,” and so on, we find ourselves in unresolvable conflicts that lead us to lapse into sacrificial practices. It is here that politics finds its point of entry and, really, its entire reason for being. Working towards the proper articulation of ethics and morality gives politics less and less to do. To put it another way, the political entrepreneur tries to turn every moral and ethical question into a political one, that is, one to be “solved” by generating a whirlpool of conflict around it (the permanent conflict is, in fact, the solution for the political actor); a counter-politics works on reversing this and distilling all political conflicts back into moral and ethical questions, in the event of which the specifically political component will vanish, and so, often, will the “problem” itself.

We do need the “imagination,” or aesthetics, for such practices. Aesthetics, for Gans, is the oscillation, on the originary scene, between the sign and the object: the form of the sign directs the scenic participant’s attention to the transfigured central object; the object, re-appearing as the object of desire, and therefore desacralized, sends the participant’s attention back to the “well-formed” sign. In this way we come to expect formal “frames” for attending to, using and consuming objects. It seems to me we need to see this momentary oscillation as a scene within the scene, or event within the event: a potential and imagined event in which a “figure” appears as both vulnerable and threatening, both complete in itself and “omni-referential.” It is through aesthetic representations—not necessarily “art”—that we can see preliminary lapse in ethics within normal and apparently ethical practices, or the immoral intentions, ends, or even implications in the most upright practices. So, I have proposed thinking about the aesthetic as a kind of “originary satire.” Think about how someone looks when we see him simultaneously at his most vulnerable and most threatening—the image is inevitably grotesque. I’ve stumbled here upon the thesis that, aesthetically speaking, the grotesque precedes the beautiful and the sublime. I would defend that by saying that the grotesque gives us the human on the scene as the sign, while the beautiful and the sublime transfer the aesthetic representation to the center and invest it with divinity, which is to say desirability, internal symmetry and unapproachability. The beautiful and sublime are, of course, immensely valuable human acquisitions, but if we want to see when and where we are at our worst in thinking we’re at our best, or where our desires and resentments are cloaked in the most beautiful and sublime forms, we need originary satire. I’ll conclude with the grandiose and perhaps grotesque claim that only originary satire can hold the entire moral and ethical order together. Not to mention that it best stymies all political rhetoric—all divisive claims cloaked in the treacly preaching of edifying unification around principles defined and controlled by the rhetorician himself—and therefore most aggressively crowds out the political.