Month: April 2011
Watching the festivities today, I heard from several directions, that Pageantry is something very British, and something that Britain can be especially proud of.
I can only assume that the people saying these things have been in very few foreign countries. On the whole, pageantry is something Britain does exceptionally little of.
In the USA, every high school has a marching band, and public celebrations on the scale of a Royal Wedding are fixtures in the calendar, taking months of preparation every year. The New Year Tournament of Roses typically draws a live attendance of a million; the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gets an annual TV audience not much smaller than the population of England. Attempts in Britain to hold comparable events are tiny, amateurish, and attract only bemusement from spectators.
So let’s hear no more of the “British love of pageantry”. Are their conclusions to draw instead from the relative lack of public celebration in Britain?
One point is that parades such as Mardi Gras and Saint Patrick’s day are Roman Catholic in origin, and were suppressed in Britain by the Reformation. The untrustworthiness of the weather here is perhaps of some significance also; we were very lucky today with weather, since there is now a thunderstorm here in Luton.
The most conventional observation would be that the Britain’s Royal events are elitist, while American festivals are inclusive. Or, to put it another way, what’s the point of having a Royal Family if you have to organise your own parades? That would be almost as stupid as having a Royal Family and electing a government.
A few thoughts arise from whyiamnot’s latest.
The first is to restate the huge benefits that Western democratic governments get from the illusion that the people are actually in control. People can go out in the street, change politicians, and think they’ve achieved something, while at the same time accepting that the establishment will carry on ruling with a passivity and fatalism that is the envy of every generalissimo-turned-president-for-life.
But it is the comparison with the demonstrations of the “Arab Spring” which really got me thinking.
There are two kinds of mob, and at first it’s sometimes hard to tell which kind one is.
First is the real revolutionary mob. It is a simple fact that if a large number of people are allowed to congregate in a capital city, they can physically overthrow the government. The government is, after all, right there. All they have to do is break the doors down and take it.
The second kind are demonstrators. If the same number of people just wave banners, they can cause traffic delays, but that’s about it. They can only get rid of the government if they choose to, by becoming the first kind. That can happen, because just demonstrating does prove that the government hasn’t got the will to stop them, and that indicates that a revolution is possible where previously it was assumed not to be. That was largely the mechanism in Eastern Europe twenty-five years ago. In some cases the mob actually happened (Romania), in most as far as I recall the proof that it was possible was enough for the regime to quit before any actual lynchings started.
In a state ruled by fear, then, the fact of a mob in the street is the end. Everyone knows that, if allowed, the mob will remove the government, so proving it to be possible makes it inevitable. If the state has wider support, though, a demonstration can be a bluff. Mubarrak seemed quite willing to just let the demonstrators hang about Tahir Square, and they showed no signs of actually taking advantage of their position.
They won anyway though. That is because they were playing a different game altogether. Their banners were not for Egyptians, either in their houses, in the army, or in the ministries. The banners were in English — they were for Americans to read.
The democratic religion says that all governments everywhere ought to be subject to the will of the people. Given a clear demonstration that the people oppose a government, democrats have a religious duty to assist them, even if they themselves actually like the government in question.
The actions of the US and EU in Egypt and Libya only make the slightest bit of sense when seen as the fulfilling of an unwelcome religious obligation. Mubarrak was shoved out easily enough, but Gadaffi required a bit more action. However, it is obvious that nobody’s heart is really in Libyan regime change. Reluctantly, a few planes were flown over, a few missiles shot off. The Americans have apparently now done their bit and gone home. There was never a plan for victory, because there was never a desire for victory, only a duty to “help”, fulfilled with the same enthusiasm as dropping a fiver into the collection plate at the end of the service.
Bonald of Throne and Altar is aiming to produce a “neofeudalism“, which should be interesting. He opens with the challenging line, “We shall never truly defeat socialism until we abolish private property.”
To be clear, my own view is different: the problem is not that we got rid of feudalism, it’s that the one last obsolete feudal institution that needed to be destroyed unfortunately remains.
I don’t think feudalism works at all outside a primarily agricultural economy. If the government is made up of landowners who have the bulk of economic power, then their interests are both fairly uniform, and fairly consistent. Compare with the present day, where the interests of civil servants, bankers, professors, property developers, union leaders, arms manufacturers and media providers are all at odds, and vary rapidly, meaning that government made up of those groups is mostly concerned with internal disputes rather than overall effectiveness.
Aretae has a problem with authority.
I’ve never been able to understand authority as anything other than thugs with bigger sticks
Well, sure. That goes without saying. But thugs with bigger sticks are a fact of life, unless you set out yourself to be the biggest thug of all. Which, despite his having “chosen reason over authority”, does not seem to have been Aretae’s plan (I’m not sure exactly how to go about it, but I doubt it would leave much time for cookery).
This is a step back from our previous discussion, because it’s not about formalism versus democracy, or monarchy versus neocameralism, it’s about law versus anarchy.
The metaphor I would prefer, though, is not a “step back”, but a step down. Morality, or “Right Conduct”, like system architectures, has layers*.
The base layer is absolute imperatives. These pretty much have to be supernatural, or else non-existent. Aretae believes that nobody can give him an order that he absolutely must obey. I agree. At that layer, I am an anarchist:
There is no God but Man
Man has the right to live by his own law
blah blah blah…
Man has the right to kill those who would thwart those rights.
Having deified my own reason and my own appetites above all alleged authority, I can now follow them to get what I want.
The technology risk/governance types in a large organisation come up with rules about what a programmer on the coalface is allowed to do to the company’s precious systems. They frequently come up with rules for application code, and rules for configuration. If they’re not careful, or not expert, they end up with definitions that either classify java bytecode as configuration for the jvm, or else classify users’ spreadsheets as application code. Code and configuration really aren’t different things, they’re just different layers. They smell the same.
If Aretae starts to construct rules of thumb for how to act by his own reason for his own appetites, those rules will smell a lot like morality. They may not actually be ultimate imperatives that he has to obey, but then java bytecode isn’t actually machine instructions that are executed by a CPU.
So when I argue for authority, I do so not on the basis of ultimate morality, but on the basis of what works better for me. I don’t shy away from the words, however, because of the remarkable resemblance between what I reason to be the most utilitarian form of government, and what was once believed to have been imposed by supernatural forces. It is too close to be coincidental — I think for most people, they would be better off accepting the old morality and getting on with their cooking.
Further, the “no authority” attitude is not antithetical to formalism. The real opponents of formalism are those who do believe that some forms of government have an ultimate moral legitimacy that others lack. Aretae and I believe that all governments are ultimately “thugs with bigger sticks”, and the argument is not about which has more moral authority, but about which works better for us. That argument of course remains unresolved, but that’s because TSID, not because of different fundamental assumptions.
* Also like onions. And ogres. Both of which smell.
There are two ways to look at the historical relationship between the reformation, the enlightenment, and the unfortunate rise of the concept of popular sovereignty.
One is that privilege can only be tolerated if it is seen as having divine sanction: that if man denies God, he denies that anyone can have rightful authority over him. The reason popular sovereignty followed atheism is that it naturally follows from atheism. I thought it was worth throwing that idea out there because it’s plausible and some serious thinkers have proposed it.
There is an alternative view, however, that the old order had used religion to bolster itself, and when rationalism started to show religious beliefs to be questionable, the political system associated with it came under immediate suspicion. According to this narrative, the reactionary case must be made on a rationalist foundation, or else it is always in danger of being undercut again.
That’s my own view; since I have been persuaded by the secular argument for authority, it’s evidently possible.
The dangerous factor is that what I call “the secular argument for authority” is non-obvious. If you start from scratch to produce a political theory from philosophical foundations, you’re not likely to hit it — it really helps to have the evidence of the results of a naive rationalist political system in front of you to lead in the right direction.
I wrote the other day that you cannot just create a state of any particular design. Why even discuss designs of states, then?
What I am hoping to take part in is the building of a political formula that will eventually produce a better form of government. To borrow the metaphor used by biologists to explain the role of genes in development, it’s not a blueprint, it’s a recipe.
Political formulae were brought up by Mencius Moldbug in his post Democracy as an Adaptive Fiction. “A political formula is a belief that makes the ruled accept their rulers”. But Moldbug understates just how adaptive the fiction is. He says, “An adaptive fiction is a misperception of reality that, unlike most such misperceptions, manages to outcompete the truth”. But it is more than that. A democratic state survives because of the adaptive fiction that democracy is a desirable form of government. But if that fiction were to collapse, so would the state — and it would be messy. In the short run, the false belief that democracy is the best form of government is adaptive not just for the government, but for the believers themselves.
And vice versa. While the political formula of democracy lasts, no undemocratic form of government will work very well. One might be imposed by force, but the force will cause at least as much damage as our democracy does today.
Therefore what I am pushing is not a program of monarchism or any other formalism, but rather the political formula that will support it and make it work well. The formula comes first, and the government later.
The key element of the political formula is that governing is a task, and, other things being equal, those doing that task will do it better if they are not interfered with. I then go further and claim that this is a vital principle that it is worth making sacrifices to maintain — that even if the current ruler is blatantly making a mess of things, in all but the most extreme circumstances it is better in the long run to let it happen and hope for better weather than to act to sort things out and set a precedent that in the long run will lead all the way back to democracy.
There are a handful of minor ideas that go with it, like belief in the value of the virtues of personal loyalty, family loyalty and patriotism. They are not essential, but they help.
We could throw in the divine right of kings, but I’d rather not. I don’t actually believe it’s true, and the problem with a false premiss of that sort is that, even if its first order effects are beneficial, the most able reasoners will reason from it to ever more lunatic conclusions. While our democracy actually works moderately well, many of its worst effects are due to the absurd theorems derived correctly from its political formula.
It is argued by some — Bruce Charlton, for instance — that it is not possible to create respect for authority in a culture which is secular and largely atheist. They could be right. Atheism and Democracy came in as partners and reinforced each other, and now I am trying to keep the atheism and lose the democracy.
I have reasons for thinking it possible. As the old order died, there were those who tried to retain it who had a very cynical view of the religious angle. I found a lovely quote recently:
he allowed, indeed, of the necessity and legality of Resistance in some extraordinary cases … [he] was of opinion that this ought to be kept from the knowledge of the people, who are naturally too apt to resist. That the Revolution was not to be boasted of and made a precedent, but we ought to throw a mantle over it, and rather call it Vacancy or Abdication.
That is Bishop Hooper (I think this one), described in “Tudor England” by Barry Coward. “Resistance” here means opposing the rightful ruler, and “the Revolution” is the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Consistent with my formula, Hooper believed the revolution was a good move but a bad precedent. Note that, though a bishop, he is reasoning on entirely secular grounds.
He and the other Tories of the time hoped to restore the form of monarchic government with new personnel. They lost, but I don’t believe their loss was inevitable. They had majority support in the country, but lacked the intellectual elite (again, I recommend The Kit-Cat Club by Ophelia Field). However, as usual, Left and Right in this debate had differing visions of what the results of “progress” would be, and those on the Right were proved much more correct by history. That is why I do not believe I am attempting to reassemble an exploded bomb back to the moment before explosion. If the Whigs had known then what we know now, most of them would not have been Whigs.
Aretae lists 7 points of disagreement, but in the main for me, I don’t disagree with them, they’re mostly “yes, but…”
Autonomy. Among the top values people seek, indeed. But the state is very rarely the biggest limiter of autonomy. Where it is, something has gone very wrong. On the other hand, I have little patience with those who happen to exercise their autonomy in attempting to overthrow the state, and then get all indignant when the state runs them over with a tank.
Bad government, and the purpose of the state. States don’t need purposes, they happen without one. The nearest thing to a purpose any state has for me is the purpose of preventing a worse state arising.
Chaos. This is one where we agree. Instability succumbs to stability, but too much stability fails in the long run. The question is which is more stable: a broad-based state to which every change is a threat, or a narrow-based state which is more independent of the society it rules, but less limited in what interventions it can make.
Design. Again, agreed. But the exercise of central power is not the same as the existence of central power. Central power is exercised to excess today because each element of the large ruling coalition can exercise only a tiny fraction or the central power, and gains power within the coalition by exercising that fraction. The holders of central power collectively do not benefit from its exercise, but that collective interest is not expressed by constituent individual interests.
Ethics. Ideas of what is ethical are very malleable over a timescale of generations. I suspect that the currently mainstream ethical positions of western societies are incompatible with good government, and I am trying to change them, more than trying to change government directly.
Font of power. The most difficult for me. What enables a narrow coalition to retain power? One answer is the Ethics. For most of history, loyalty to superiors and acceptance of one’s desginated place were high virtues. Today, possession of any unearned privilege is unethical. If a move back towards the older ideas could be achieved, would that enable an under-strength coalition to rule peacefully? Or am I idealising a mythical old morality that never really existed?
Game theory. We go full circle. Yes, a narrow based coalition will be more acquisitive, but is that a bigger problem than that of Design above: that the goodies that a broad-based coalition distributes will be distributed on the basis of BDUF? I resent what the state spends for my alleged benefit far more than what its members steal for themselves.
Clarifications from Aretae and Whyiamnot show, I think, that we are all seeking the same things. The “rules” that Aretae wishes to preserve are not political rules but the rules of private property and economic freedom that actually benefit non-politicians, while Why emphasises that he supports voting not as a right, but as a practical method for ensuring better government, and argues that the vote should be taken away from state dependents (and he says he is not a reactionary!)
But perhaps I am not a reactionary. The aim of this theoretical discussion is not to form a movement that will overthrow David Cameron and install an absolute monarchy, either of Stuarts or of Battenburgs. Our tangled old democracy has its benefits (not least that the random shocks of technological change, which I mentioned recently, are less likely to tear it apart).
Its resistance to shocks, however, is also a resistance to improvement. Why wishes to restrict the franchise, but I can find no example of that ever happening: though there is usually opposition to any given extension of the franchise, once it is won, it is won for ever*. There are many other ratchets operating. Even what we are left with today would be worth preserving, if it could be preserved — but our societies contain an ever higher proportion of people with no expectation of working, ever more entrenched tax-eating agglomerations with diminishing value to anyone, ever more expensive government.
It can’t be turned round. Thatcher got rid of the miners and the steelworkers, but only because new, stronger public-sector bodies were taking their place. The teachers and the social workers and the environmental consultants and the privatisation IPO advisers didn’t need the miners, so they let them go, but the total payroll never went down.
What we have is not too bad, but it cannot stop getting worse, — Why clearly scores a point when he turns my “realistically oppose progressivism” demand back on reactionaries — the question my theoretical pieces are addressing is what we do next.
When is “next”? I haven’t the foggiest. Democracy has lasted a hundred years in Britain, somewhat less across Western Europe, and rather more in the United States. As the quality of government has gone down, the quality of life has gone up, improvements in technology and private organisation disguising the increasing damage done by the state.
I don’t rule out a total collapse in the near future, from hyperinflation, terrorism, or some black swan, but it’s not what I expect. My guess (and it really is no more than that) is that democracy can struggle on another 50-100 years, with decreasing growth rates and more bumps along the road. China could either collapse or join the club, eventually becoming an old democracy of sorts, probably a bit more corrupt and nastier than what we have now.
But it’s not going to get better, and someday it’s going to have to be renewed. Most likely it will go back round the cycle of a young democracy, waves of Jacobin terror and fascism, until some new establishment can bring things under control behind the facade of a re-established limited** democracy.
But I think a wrong turn was taken in 17th century England and 18th century France, and I expect a similar choice will be presented again in the 21st century. Someone will force order onto the chaos of a disintegrated state, and will then either consolidate personal power or hand it over to some revived or newly-designed constituent assembly. I am hoping for the former.
My blogging is not keeping pace with Aretae or Devin Finbarr, and there are recent points from both to be responded to, with luck later today.
* In comments at his place, Why suggests the Test and Corporation acts as reductions in the franchise. I believe they were restrictions on holding office rather than on voting.
** That analogy to our recent monarchy discussions may be a better terminology than my “old versus new democracy“. Old democracy is limited democracy, New democracy is absolute democracy. The only point of confusion is that the limitation is probably not explicit or legalistic, but only practical. An absolute democracy can have a constitution tightly circumscribing its powers, and a limited democracy can have theoretically complete power but work through a practically unreformable civil service or military with independent views.
The main valid argument for AV is that it isn’t as sensitive as FPTP to which candidate people think is going to win. It may get rid of the truly inane feature that I reported on at the last general election, where the parties argued more about who was likely to win than about who ought to win.
A second valid argument for AV is that it encourages the expression of non-mainstream views, by not penalising voters for unpopular parties. It doesn’t actually give unpopular parties any more representation, as PR does, but it gives them more visibility.
The main valid argument against AV is that it is likely to produce centrist coalitions, whatever the changes in views of the voters.
Putting the three points together, I have to be in favour. In my theory, the value of democracy is that it has perceived legitimacy, reducing the amount that the ruling establishment hsa to do to protect itself. The one anti argument actually helps in this regard, as it makes the establishment even more secure.
However, the pro arguments are still applicable, as it is valuable to make the unconventional more visible, as that will aid thinking about what we should do when and if the current establishment does fail.
There is a very strong consensus among the sort of people I read (reg, Tim, Neil, isegoria) that the reporting about the nuclear reactor problems at Fukushima is a typical hysterical overreaction by ignorant greens, lefty ideologues, and sensationalist media.
I threw my own rotten tomatoes at the target, when I looked at deaths from other kinds of power stations.
There is just one voice among my hundred or so blogroll subscriptions saying that in fact a major disaster has occurred that will seriously affect Tokyo.
Well, it’s hard to score 100%, isn’t it? So one guy happened to fall for the bullshit. Big deal.
The thing is that the one guy isn’t a green, a lefty, or a journalist. He isn’t as a rule overly trusting of the MSM. And he knows a good bit about nuclear reactors. I’m talking about M Simon of the blog Power and Control.
He could still be wrong. I’m not bringing the question up now to guess at whether he is or not: I don’t have to do anything different either way, and we’ll know in due course.
I’m interested, though, in the shape of the argument. We know we’re surrounded by ignorant greens, lefty ideologues and sensationalist media. But what if, by coincidence, this time they’re right?
The situation reminds me of the Anthropogenic Global Warming argument in reverse. Mainstream western scientists know that “science is under attack from a well-organized, politically well-connected and, above all, well-financed opposition”, and that “The real war is between rationalism and superstition”, and if a small proportion of Richard Lindzens and Freeman Dysons are mysteriously on the wrong side, well, weird stuff happens in politics.
Mr Simon is so keen on fusion that he wants to get rid of fission generation. And he doesn’t like the Japanese. (I knew an old guy who was in the US Navy, and he didn’t like the Japanese. Stands to reason). Yeah, that will cover it, I don’t need to bother with his extremely detailed arguments.
Easy to do, easy to do… As I said, it doesn’t matter this time, because we’ll know one way or the other soon enough anyway. But I’m fascinated by how the story plays out.