Month: September 2012
I carelessly ventured into the issue of meritocracy versus static class hierarchies, but the volume of relevant comment and even current events since has been more than I can cope with.
I learned, for instance (from Felix Salmon), that the term “meritocracy” itself is only 50 years old, and was coined by a critic, the Labour politician Michael Young (Baron Young of Dartington). Judging by an old Guardian article I found, his criticisms are not identical to mine, but there is considerable overlap.
chris dillow pointed out that even an ideal free market is only a rough approximation to meritocracy, quoting Hayek: “the return to people’s efforts do not correspond to recognizable merit.”
Separately, a post at conservativetimes made the point that historical aristocracies did not see themselves in opposition to merit, rather, the aristocrats believed that they were the best people.
By “merit” in this context, we generally understand skill, knowledge, hard work. In those terms, the theory that hereditary aristocrats are the most meritorious is not very convincing. Advantages in education and upbringing can give them an edge in ability, but not necessarily a large one. The meritocratic claim, that you will get more of whatever qualities you are looking for by opening access for the widest possible population, is much more reasonable.
Since the term “meritocracy” post-dates aristocracies, they clearly didn’t think of themselves exactly that way in any case. The term they used for their exclusive quality was “nobility”. Does that get us any closer to understanding them? What does it mean to be noble? This needs looking into.
However, defining nobility to embrace a broader element of virtue, the case is still weak. Even if aristocrats are on average more virtuous, itself a highly dubious proposition, there are surely many lesser-born among the most virtuous. I still think it makes sense to assume that the distinguishing quality of an aristocrat is loyalty to the existing order.
Spandrell commented that there is very much solidarity among the ruling elite, at least in Mediterranean societies. It may be that I underestimated this even for Britain, perhaps because my context at the time was the hyper-competitive environment of electoral politics. Capitalists and civil servants perhaps exhibit more cohesiveness. This needs looking into.
On a related note, Bryan Caplan wrote a very good blog post, addressing the obvious and important question, “Why is democracy tolerable?”. He cites research that finds, that where the opinions of the rich and the rest differ, policy overwhelmingly tends to follow the opinions of the rich. That could be a point in favour of Spandrell’s “upper class solidarity” argument, though the rich having more power than the poor is not in contradiction with either meritocracy or aristocracy/oligarchy.
Helen Rittlemeyer’s post addresses the mechanisms of the changes in the Western ruling classes. The point is that, while the ruling class always admitted some new blood, the result was that the incomers learned and adopted the culture and values of the existing rulers. In recent decades, the flow of “meritocratic” new blood has been sufficient to swamp the old culture. There is an obvious parallel there to the conventional wisdom around mass immigration; that there is a maximum rate that allows for integration of newcomers into a society.
Of course, all this brings us to the major news story of last week: the incident of the Government Chief Whip being rude to a policeman. While it’s impossible not to at least raise an eyebrow at the media weight the affair has received, I must admit that it is more interesting to me than goings-on in Syria and Libya or the latest bickerings over the Spanish bailout.
Philip Blond’s argument chimes with Rittlemeyer’s, that Mitchell represents the “new” ruling class who have the power of the old one without the culture. Of course, Mitchell’s position has some relevance: if the popular view of the Chief Whip’s role is accurate, then getting people to do what he tells them by bullying them, swearing at them, belittling them and threatening them is not Mitchell’s hobby, it is his job. The incident is more akin to a Formula One driver speeding on the motorway out of habit than to a footballer partying with underage girls out of an exaggerated sense of entitlement and self-importance, though it has qualities of both.
For Rittlemeyer’s take to be applicable, it does not matter whether Mitchell himself is “old blood” or a meritocratic climber. The claim is not that that the ruling class contains incomers who do not have the old mores, it is that the old mores have been destroyed by the culture (or lack of culture) of the incomers, and now not even the old blood still retain them. (Blond contrasts Mitchell with Boris Johnson as an example of the old-style elite, but Johnson is self-consciously eccentric, and not necessarily a good example of any wider body).
Referring to my 2037 piece, I said:
when it comes to any kind of power, loyalty is more important than exceptional ability. That’s not to say that incompetence is OK, but if your system of government depends on having people of exceptional ability, then it’s broken. Instead take the most competent people from the pool of those brought up to privilege and loyalty, and if they’re not good enough to, say, run a car company, the solution is not to have a government car company… The motto of the civil service should be “Good Enough for Government Work”
Commenter newt0311 objected that “real power always ends up with the exceptional”, and that if the elite is no longer composed of the exceptional, the civilisation dies. My immediate response was that the elite might need the best people, but the government doesn’t.
That’s what I had in mind when I wrote “good enough for government work”; that the middle management of the state administration should not be sucking up top talent that would contribute more to the common good in the productive sector. That’s only half the argument, though; my initial point was that the most senior people had to be trustworthy, and it is better to compromise on ability than bring in people who cannot be counted on to be loyal.
The loyalty factor does not necessarily go away outside the government itself. I wrote that “If you have real power, you will be expected to positively show loyalty”, and that includes those outside the state.
(In itself, that is admittedly a questionable idea: the problem is that market competition could be corrupted by participants attempting to get their competitors into trouble. I think that’s a small risk compared to the massive rent-seeking that goes on under democracy, but it’s a worry).
So, is newt0311 right; does civilisation require that exception people be in control? I don’t see it. If the elite systematically excluded those of exceptional ability, that would leave a superior “shadow elite” with an argument for, and the ability to, replace the ruling elite. That would be a bad situation. I’m not arguing for excluding the exceptional, nor for ignoring the value of ability. I am only claiming that there are other important factors to balance it.
To put my case in the simplest form, the single hardest thing for civilisation to achieve is to coordinate people effectively. Doing so does require individuals of great ability, but more than that, it requires trust. That, as I wrote before, is the solution to the “lobotomised by activity” problem that we see in both Nick Clegg and Barack Obama. Thus I advocate that the elite select first on the basis of insiders — people who have a stake in the system and can be trusted, and then choose for ability within that.
(An aside: “being from a good family”, which is more or less what I mean by “insider”, is not in itself a sufficient guarantee of loyalty. For more sensitive positions, more evidence than that will be needed. But it’s a good start, and it also provides a way to get other evidence: the employer will know people who know the candidate, and be much better able to gauge their character than in a meritocratic system.)
Our current form of government is effectively the opposite. We are ruled by people of exceptional ability, in the public and private sectors; every position is open to anyone, and the winners are those who have beaten their rivals in the most demanding contest. However, they then represent themselves, with varying degrees of credibility, as ordinary people. Also, because they have all come through highly selective processes, they have no connections to each other, and are still competing and fighting each other at the highest level of government.
This leads to the “arrogance and recklessness” problem I discussed some time ago: not only is each individual selected for ability over reliability, but they are in a peer group that is immersed in the idea that second-best is a disgrace. That produces the “champion or bust” attitude that has caused so many of our recent disasters. A soupçon of meritocracy is a manageable thing when added into a culture of in-group loyalty. When meritocracy becomes the culture, it is time to head for the bunker.
(The other problem, of course, is what their exceptional ability actually is. They’re not necessarily the best people for doing their jobs; they are the best at getting their jobs. But the premise of the discussion is that ability is ability; these are exceptional people.)
Michael Lewis’s piece in Vanity Fair, based on spending time with President Obama last year, is absolutely essential reading.
I’ve seen some comments on twitter to the effect that the piece is basically out to make Obama seem like a nice guy. Well, that’s Michael Lewis’s schtick; he blends the big story with a feel for the personalities of the subjects. He does it very well; I got held up writing this, because it reminded me I never got around to reading The Blind Side, and that caused me to waste a day.
Obama probably is a nice guy, but that’s not the big story, and it isn’t all that important either way.
There are two stories in the article; first the atmosphere of the presidency, and second the decision to overthrow Gadaffi.
The atmosphere is familiar, particularly reminding me of Nick Clegg saying he feels “lobotomised” by working in government, with the “frenetic” pace of politics leaving him with no time to think. Lewis says Obama “has the oddest relationship to the news of any human being on the planet. Wherever it starts out, it quickly finds him and forces him to make some decision about it: whether to respond to it, and shape it, or to leave it be. As the news speeds up, so must our president’s response to it”.
An incidental point is Lewis’s judgement that “He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them.” To me that is just a sign of someone who doesn’t understand politics very well. (Some have suggested that Obama is some kind of cynical political operator, based on his participation in the famously grubby Chicago political machine. But that may overestimate his role there — he may well have been a piece on the board there, rather than a chessplayer).
Lewis represents as exceptional and courageous Obama’s refusal to make a snap decision on whether to support a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011. Rather than deciding in one meeting, he demanded a second meeting with alternative actions suggested that, unlike a no-fly zone, would actually work.
And so to the second big story. If Lewis’s account is to be believed, the decision to take out the Libyan army on the road to Benghazi, thereby destroying the Libyan state and producing a revolutionary government, was made entirely on the basis of the humanitarian issue caused by the steps Gadaffi would be likely to take to regain control of Benghazi. The arguments made against decisively taking the rebel side in the civil war were purely based on the cost and the risk of tying up further US military resources. The question of who would take over Libya and what they would do afterwards doesn’t seem to have arisen; rather, “The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room.” The mind boggles.
But, from Obama’s position, the decision was made in a few hours here and there. I have put more time into deciding whether to buy a DVD.
The overwhelming fact is the constraint of available time. Any person, of whatever ability and whatever theoretical power, can be made impotent just by keeping them busy. And if the only decisions which are referred to the top level are the ones which are so well-balanced as to be 50-50, the leader might just as well toss a coin.
Therefore, the only real way to gain power is as a group: one leader and a few loyal sidekicks. The sidekicks have the real power, because they have time to think. The leader is effectively their frontman.
Alternatively, the leader can take one issue, allowing a sidekick to handle everything else. That’s the setup described in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon, and referred to by Fred Brooks in The Missing Man-Month.
OK, so I’ve written the first example of what I think should be in the Reactionary Library. I feel tempted to make a big deal of it, and then I remember the problem, that it’s not very good. I’m making it a separate post (to follow), because the idea is it’s supposed to stand on its own, but it doesn’t, so here’s a load of supporting commentary. Responses & comments can come here, so I’ll close off comments on the article itself and point them here.
It talks about a scenario where an openly absolute Windsor monarchy has been established in England (more likely England & Wales, maybe Great Britain or Great Britain & Northern Ireland, but that’s one of many points not addressed). It doesn’t talk about how that happened, which is more important and more difficult.
The first part emphasises the continuity with the traditional monarchy, while no continuity with the last 300 years of prime ministerial government. There should be no trace of the House of Commons, because even if it had value it would be a focus for recreating some kind of democracy. I originally wanted to leave the House of Lords out too, but I want the important people of the country to see themselves as insiders, with duties to the system, so formalising their role is helpful.
The reason for the important people having hereditary peerages is that, when it comes to any kind of power, loyalty is more important than exceptional ability. That’s not to say that incompetence is OK, but if your system of government depends on having people of exceptional ability, then it’s broken. Instead take the most competent people from the pool of those brought up to privilege and loyalty, and if they’re not good enough to, say, run a car company, the solution is not to have a government car company. The Victorian meritocratic civil service was exceptionally effective, but it was a step down the wrong road. The motto of the civil service should be “Good Enough for Government Work” (what’s that in Latin?)
The idea of the King abdicating in old age is tricky: I’ve argued against it in the past, because it isn’t traditional and it creates uncertainty and possibly faction. I don’t think it’s really avoidable, though. In the past monarchies had a lot of problems with infertility and with heirs inheriting at a very young age; in the modern world those difficulties should be very rare, but kings partly-incapacitated with age will be more of a problem than ever before. It’s more important, though, that there’s no authority that can impose it. It has to be the king’s own decision.
I’ve written before on the idea of the oldest child, male or female, inheriting. Also not traditional, but probably for the best.
My idea for the most senior administrators is that they have already “made it”. They are not struggling to hang on another year, they get the wealth and status, and they get to keep them, even if they are replaced.
A lot of this stuff is about public attitude rather than systems. The highest aim of an ambitious person should be to establish a dynasty which will remain important for generations. It’s not as easy to see how that works in a modern volatile economy as in an agricultural society where land ownership was reliable long-term wealth.
The point I’m trying to get to is where the King’s senior people are insiders rather than players. They work for the system because it is their system and because it is their duty.
The alternative is for them to be professionals rather than aristocrats, consultants rather than politicians, hired on contracts. I don’t think that’s as desirable, but it may be easier to get to.
The military thing is fairly obvious, I think, given the already existing relationship between the Royal Family and the military. It gives the system extra stability.
When it comes to economics, everything depends on what the world economy is actually going to be like in 25 years. The biggest question is what economic value do unskilled workers have? In the max-automation scenario, they are probably valueless, but it becomes cheap to effectively institutionalise them. If some of my speculations on AI turn out correct, they could be useful as supervisors of machines. Since their role would be to provide motivation and direction for the computer systems, it would be more important for them to be “good people”, trustworthy and loyal, than to be particularly skilled. This is a reversal of the 20th century view of human capital: we have spent 200 years trying to get people to be better machines — in this scenario the machines will be machines, the people need to be better people.
For the purposes of the exercise, I’ve stipulated less economic change than is really probable, but there have to be some assumptions, and they might as well be familiar ones for now.
That means some kind of welfare safety net is essential. The key is to get rid of entitlements. If you’re going to be supported by other people, there has to be some reason why they would want to support you. If you go out of your way to make yourself unpleasant, as far as I’m concerned you can starve.
I wouldn’t be surprised if things were more like they are now; with low taxes and light regulation, there should be jobs for nearly everyone. In that case the welfare problem would be a lot easier.
For taxation, I’d rather have less tax and all from land, but in this medium-term scenario, Royal wealth is power, and I don’t think it’s safe to keep it all “re-invested” in the economy. I’m also not sure it’s possible to raise 25% of GNP from land taxes. It should be possible to find a few things that can be conveniently taxed to raise about 10%, without unduly distorting the economy.
I didn’t get to monetary policy. Neoreactionaries tend to be Austrians, and I lean that way myself, but I don’t see that restoration implies Austrianism. A restoration is going to be cautious, where it can be, and a radically different monetary policy, such as a gold standard, isn’t all that cautious. So it’s an option, but I’ll leave the question for the moment.
Legal system is straightforward. There is some tension between making sure the authority of the king is unchallenged, and ensuring the administration is consistent and predictable enough that the country is an attractive place to live and do business. At the end of the day, though, it is very strongly in the King’s interest to achieve the latter.
A well-run state would be such a rare thing that it would attract huge numbers of foreign rich. That is an economic bounty that would go a long way to securing the new regime against its many enemies, but there is a risk that the native population might start to be marginalised or ignored. I am seriously worried about social problems, particularly if there is a large bottom segment of the native population which fails to adapt and ends up in deep poverty, while extremely rich foreigners flood in. On the other hand, I believe a comfortable unconditional safety net is too corrupting to society.
Ultimately, no blueprint can protect the native population if it truly doesn’t have any value to contribute. The monarch’s legitimacy comes from being King of the English, not simply owner of an island. Again, the military would tend to be a stabilising force in terms of the status of the people. If the military starts being run by foreign mercenaries, we have a problem.
A social conservatism is part of the overall project, but I’ve shied away from explicitly establishing it. My thinking is that merely ceasing to promote and subsidise immorality will be sufficient to move things in the right direction, whereas attempting to impose a traditional family structure will stir up a lot of trouble. I didn’t answer the question of exactly who keeps a child if the recognised parents split up, which is quite important.
There is no reason to allow people to go around openly trying to overthrow the state. But real censorship of information is practically impossible. Subversive ideas will circulate, but subversive organisation will not be tolerated.
Of course, if all it consists of is a tiny group of extremists, it’s not worth acting against them. It’s more likely though that there will be significant foreign-backed democracy movements.
The handling of private arms is a compromise between efficient policing and containing rebellion. Private arms are normally allowed, but commanding armed men is reserved to the state and its chosen allies.
The general principle here is that ordinary people are free, but those closer to power are subject to greater suspicion. If you have real power, you will be expected to positively show loyalty. In historical monarchies, it generally wasn’t the peasants who landed in the Star Chamber or its equivalent.
The actual activity of the Royal Family took little work, as it is basically compatible with how it has functioned since the Abdication. The aim is to preserve the family and its position, and the method of doing so is much the same even if the position is elevated.
Read the article here
(see previous article for commentary)
It is 2037
William V is King and Ruler of England. He lives in Buckingham Palace and is guarded by soldiers in fancy uniforms.
He has 5 children, the eldest is heir apparent.
The old Parliament Building houses his personal art collection. It is not open to the public. The House of Commons is abolished. The House of Lords no longer meets regularly, but is summonned to a 1-day meeting every two years at a Royal residence, and ad-hoc committees are appointed, usually meeting by videoconference.
Downing Street is demolished. Government offices are in Whitehall. Essentially the entire central government fits in a few office complexes near Green Park.
The Lord Chancellor is chief administrator of the government. He is answerable to the King. It is not clear to outsiders what are his positions that are approved by the King, and what are the King’s positions represented by him. He has a peerage, which like all peerages is hereditary. He has been rewarded for his service with the peerage, if he did not already have it, and with an estate to go with it. His heirs will probably tend towards the King’s service themselves. Government service is open to all classes, but those with familial ties have a significant advantage.
The official salary of the Lord Chancellor is high but not spectacular: in 2012 terms, maybe GBP250,000.
The King is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. He has a Chief of General Staff — a personal appointment. In peacetime, the Lord Chancellor has no detailed responsibility for the armed services or for foreign policy. The army is possibly a bit bigger than strictly necessary, and is directly associated with the monarchy. That said, there will not be a large army if there is no foreign threat that requires it.
Government can intervene in the economy, but will do so either tentatively or on a small scale. Poor relief will not officially be from government, but via “Royal charity” funded mainly or partly from the King’s personal revenues. Any government employment schemes would be on the same basis, as private business owned by the King.
Justice and Police are government functions funded from the government budget. The distinction between government spending and the King’s personal spending and expenses isn’t fundamentally meaningful, but it distinguishes areas that are run according to publicly defined rules from those which are essentially under personal supervision.
Health and Education would be largely private with some charity. Both would be nearly unregulated. Customers without assets could contract to supply labour via a hospital or school, if that can be made profitable.
If England is one of the first countries to move in this direction, it would become a magnet for the global rich. If the world economy moves in the direction of greater automation and few productive jobs for low-IQ/low-skilled workers, then personal service is likely to be a growth area.
(Personal service is currently depressed due to the low status which results from the present-day “system”-oriented theory, and also due to high taxes and a general culture which admires rebellion).
Taxation runs at about 25% of GNP. About half of this is raised from taxes on land, and there are also sales taxes on a selection of goods, and turnover taxes on a selection of businesses. The government runs to a budget, which is paid for out of the tax revenue, and the surplus goes to the King. The King accumulates land and financial assets, and spends a substantial amount on the welfare charities.
Immigration is not tightly restricted, but the King’s charities prefer to support citizens than foreigners, and would help with resettlement abroad in preference to supporting immigrants. Foreigners can live and work freely, but are subject to an income tax.
The legal system and trial by jury is retained, but formalities are reduced and the discretion of judges enhanced. PACE is abolished. All reporting restrictions on court procedings are abolished, including those relating to family law. The highest court is a royal audience.
Legislation is passed by royal decree. An advisory committee of Lords and senior lawyers is appointed by the King.
Marriage is not legally recognised, but adults can publicly take responsibility for children. It is a crime to maltreat the children in one’s care. If poverty is used as a defence for such maltreatment, forced adoption can be ordered by the court. If necessary, there may be state orphanages, but they would be run cheaply and the expectation is that family or a charity would do a better job.
Private citizens are permitted to use force to keep the peace. They are allowed to carry weapons, but this is not a fundamental right, and individuals can be ordered not to go armed by competent authorities. Organised armed bodies are required to have a Royal charter, which can be withdrawn. Some private security companies have such charters and provide armed guards. The guards have no special legal powers beyond those of independent citizens, though.
There is a small state-run media consisting mostly of official announcements. The ceremonial of monarchy is maintained.
Private media are not subject to any special regulation, but it is a serious criminal offense to oppose the King’s rule. Criticism of government policy is allowed and individuals or groups may publicly petition the King, but criticism of the system of government is sedition. Also, to combine any crime, such as vandalism or obstruction, with complaints about policy, thereby constitutes sedition.
Foreign content which breaches these rules can be transmitted and indexed, but not specifically promoted.
Police officers are organised along similar lines to today, with each officer holding a Royal Warrant. Their role is to preserve the King’s Peace and protect the realm from internal enemies.
Authorities may only demand information or other cooperation from private parties via a limited system of court warrants. However, state investigators are not restricted from using whatever non-intrusive methods of intelligence and evidence-gathering they can find. Rules of evidence are oriented only towards the reliability of the evidence in question.
The government is mostly centralised, but each county has a local office which organises roads, planning, water & sewerage, and anything else that remains a locally-provided service. These offices report to the Lord Chancellor and are centrally funded, but consult locally.
The King will probably abdicate in old age, though it is up to him. His eldest child will succeed, and is brought up to do so. The younger children know that there is a risk of being called upon.
Long Live The King!
(comments please on the related commentary post)
The thing in the last post about politicians being consumers of theory reminded me of something. I read “Dreams of My Father” a couple of months ago. I found it very thought-provoking.
Strangely, the least important thing about the book is that its author later became U.S. President. The fascinating aspects are quite independent of that. The book is the best account I have read of the life of a small-time politician: the business of politics and the kind of person who participates in it. On the other hand, the book doesn’t tell us that much about the second Barack Obama, the one who became Senator and President. He is a later creation.
Anyway, Obama is a perfect example of a consumer of political theory: he neither has a political theory of his own, nor is primarily motivated by theory. His motivation is “be important by helping black people”, and he simply picks the first theory off the top of the pile and follows it. Even where he can clearly see the shortcomings of the theory, he doesn’t attempt to innovate or look elsewhere, because that’s the theory he has, and that’s the movement he’s part of. His choices are to carry on or to give up.
That’s why it’s so important to have a theory out there, rather than a handful of inchoate principles.
Candide and anonymous commenter suggest in comments that my programme of a few posts back just looks like an excuse to w—, let’s say waffle, on the internet instead of doing real work.
On the contrary, it is a project that demands a lot of work aimed at some measurable deliverables.
True, I followed my post with some very typical “waffle on the internet” posts on human nature. They do not advance the project in the slightest, however.
The Project is to define the methods of moving from a collapsed liberal order to a secure, effective, responsible government.
Since there are many forms of collapsed liberal order, there will probably need to be many methods. Because a newly-created government is by definition not stable, there will need to be methods to maintain the government in place, without sacrificing effectiveness or responsibility.
If anyone fancies it, we could have methods to move from still-functioning liberal government to a stable, effective, responsible government. I can’t see it myself, but I’m open to suggestions.
What do we have so far? Very little. We have some very iffy sketches from Moldbug: the “True Election“, the “Reboot“. We have a couple of historical Restorations to look at. Examples of fascist or Marxist takeovers might provide a few clues, but are unlikely to be usable as-is.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask, in the case of a national bankruptcy or a disputed election, what happens next? Do those who are left call on a retired statesman, a general, the Queen? Do they appoint Lords Lieutenants to administer in their name, or Barons to rule as independent subordinates? Is a committee of airline pilots appointed to oversee? What will the universalists be doing at the same time, and how will our aims be achieved instead of theirs?
We need a library of this stuff. Even if, when the time comes, it doesn’t really work as a user-guide because of general unpredictability, it will enable those who follow it to look as if they know what they’re doing, which in terms of public opinion will be of more benefit than our waving a banner around and looking like loonies would be today.
The kind of people who end up with power are generally not theoreticians, or even motivated by political theory. They are consumers of theory, and will seize on a theory that serves their purpose at the time. Having a ready-to-wear theory available on the shelf would be enough to put neoreaction in the game.
That is the project. Unlike neoreaction itself, it needs a good and respectable name — something like “Restoration Library” (that one’s taken by some Christians, but it’s a starting point). Something with an arbitrary component might be better for uniqueness and recognisability — “The Caddington Library of Restoration”, say.
There is a huge amount to do, but we can make a start. If we were anywhere near ready, the library should actually be printed as books. Mind, by the time we actually are nearly ready, the credibility benefit of paper might have gone.
For now, it’s just a matter of creating and collating the material. Presentation can wait. Some selectivity will be needed even now, though nothing we have currently is very good, it isn’t worthwhile to weigh ourselves down with any old tripe that fits the criteria, such as Breivik’s blueprint for civil war.
This is an ambitious project, but I think it is genuinely a feasible route to implementing our principles. Marxism’s successes in the 20th Century didn’t come because its theories were overwhelmingly persuasive; they came because Marxism had theories and nobody else did.
And in any case approaching the principles from this direction really brings home how far they are from anything anyone could actually act on. I have written half an essay on one example of what a restored royal government of Britain might look like in 20 or 30 years’ time, and it’s hard work, even with generous helpings of wishful thinking. Backtracking from that to how it could have come about will be even more difficult.
Per my earlier post, I think one of the major changes of the last couple of hundred years is that the previously normal role of subordinate has become denigrated and almost eliminated, and the previously exceptional role of loner has become idealised and made normal.
The force behind this epoch-making change is liberalism’s love of system. In the enlightenment view, there is no need for a hierarchy of authority such as was believed to be necessary from Aristotle to Charles I. Rather, there are just rules, and if everyone follows them order will result.
Classical liberalism is the purest and simplest form of this. If non-aggression and private property are protected, then everyone can be free and the emergent phenomena of economics will provide security and prosperity. It is an exquisitely beautiful theory, concentric spheres in Ptolemaic perfection.
However, between difficulties eliminating the last vestiges of hierarchy, and widespread dissatisfaction with some of the results, the beautiful theory has never succeeded entirely. The mainstream liberal response has been to lump epicycles onto it. Collective defence, clean air, fair contract terms, anti-drunkenness, poverty relief. By now, the system has epicycles on its epicycles: it provides patent monopolies to encourage innovation, then competition law to restrain the monopolies. The self-evident beauty of the original liberal conception is entirely gone.
To complete the analogy, I should now propose a Copernican alternative. Alas, if there is such a thing, I have not found it. All I can offer is going back to the order of being, to the sun rising in the morning because some dung-beetle god has rolled it around the sky. Scrap the system, the Civil Procedure (Amendment No.2) Rules 2012 that will finally make the orbits work out: let’s just pick someone and put them in charge.
The astronomical analogy is important though, because that, by many accounts, is how the enlightenment came about. Natural Philosophy showed that an interfering deity was not necessary to explain the world, and that a system of impersonal natural law did a better job. By analogy, the natural philosophers felt that the King and his minions were not necessary to order human society, and a few impersonal laws would work better.
The flaw was they did not ask where the idea of the interfering deity came from in the first place. I suspect that the analogy first went in the other direction: men assumed that the ordering of nature mirrored the ordering of a well-functioning human society: that because men need to have a ruler in charge, and followers loyal to him, the natural world also must be obeying the directions of some ruling consciousness.
I say a solar system and a human civilisation are just different. No God is needed to make the sun rise, but a King is needed to make a civilisation function successfully.
In the ancestral environment, there were probably three basic strategies a man could follow. He could be a leader, a follower, or an outsider.
The most desirable role is that of leader. The leader tells other men what to do, and impresses the girls in the process. There can’t be all that many leaders, but the “Genghis Khan effect” suggests we are all disproportionately descended from those few.
Leaders have followers, and followers can have descendants too. I think simple observation is quite sufficient to show that many men are easily persuaded to follow a leader. The tendency towards governments which emphasise the personality of a leader suggests it is easier to get people to follow a leader than to follow an ideology or a set of abstract rules.
Not everyone is a leader or a follower though. There is a third role as someone who does not seek to lead others, but tries to avoid being led. I would guess that in the ancestral environment there was frequently an option of leaving the band, either with a woman or managing to retain access to one or more. It is a risky strategy, but potentially a very successful one.
In the modern environment, heading for the frontier is rarely an option, but it is easier than ever to reject all authority in society without being geographically separate from it. In medieval society, the only “outsider” roles were beggar or hermit, but today, in addition, we have freelancers, independent businessmen, the unemployed; indeed, even in employment the norm is to deny any personal authority belonging to employers or hierarchical superiors. Being under personal authority, as opposed to some rulebook, is seen as demeaning and inferior.
So we have a strange reversal: in political activity, people are nominally supposed to be adherents to some theory or ideology, but tend instead to offer loyalty to a leader. In productive activity, most people are nominally answerable to some superior, but bridle at that and prefer to see themselves rather as performing an abstract function.
What could explain this contradiction? I have a couple of ideas. First, the statesman on the television is likely to be a far more charismatic figure than the pointy-haired boss in the office next to the cubicles. He is selected from a large pool mainly for that value. In other words, large-scale media distorts our perception of what is a worthy leader in the same way that some argue it distorts our perception of what is a worthy mate. Also, loyalty to a political figure is a fake kind of followership: unlike the office General Manager, the politician isn’t going to directly tell you what to do. By analogy, the charismatic TV politician is to our innate sense of loyalty what a cupcake is to our innate sense of nutrition. The status of entertainment celebrities may be another aspect of the same tendency.
Alternatively, it may simply be that leadership was always something relevant to warfare and politics, while productive activity was more a matter of men acting independently or in voluntary cooperation. When we slot into the “follower” role, we expect to be led in raiding the next band, but we look for food on our own and hunt to display our own skill and courage. (Note I’m following the mainstream methodology of anthropology here, which is a technique I call “making shit up”).
Still with the making shit up, while a precivilised band probably followed a leader, at least for political purposes, I doubt it had middle management. The role of follower of one but leader of others may be an innovation driven by larger social groups in the last few millennia, and an awkward compromise in terms of our social instincts.
The replacement of direct personal loyalty with celebrity-worship is a very modern phenomenon, but at the same time the culmination of a centuries-long process. That is worth another post.
I’ve not been sure, in the years since I started reading Mencius Moldbug and moving towards neoreaction, that we neoreactionaries really exist. Is this really a school which has a future, or is it just a wild idea of a handful that has probably always been around and probably always will be without going anwhere?
However, it seems that our enemies have noticed us, so it looks like the anti-enlightenment is a thing that exists. Since we exist, what is our programme?
The main thing about the neoreactionary programme is that there isn’t one. A programme is something a political movement has, and we are not a political movement, we are an anti-political movement.
The nearest thing we have is what Moldbug put forward as The Procedure
Step 1: Become worthy
Step 2: Accept power
Step 3: Rule!!1!
We are not competing for power, we are preparing to accept power.
The time is not yet ripe for power to come into neoreactionary hands. It is fortunate that the time is not ripe, because neoreactionaries are not ready.
Indeed, we’re not, or at least I’m not, even preparing to accept power personally. If we win, we will not rule, but our ideas will. The people who rule will probably be the same bastards who rule now, but with better ideas and a better political formula. After all, the idea of neocameralism is that rich people have power. The idea of monarchy is that the hereditary King has power. Neoreactionaries are in the business of producing theories for other people to rule by. I don’t want to be a Royal Advisor, let alone a King, but I hope that some Royal Advisor will have read my blog.
Our activity for the present is not to enact our ideas, or even, primarily, to spread our ideas. It is to improve our ideas. What we have is little more than a set of principles: a loosely-connected collection of features of a good society. For example:
- Competition for power is illegitimate
- Equality is a false goal
- The hierarchy of security needs: peace, order, law, freedom.
- Government requires personal responsibility
The difficult question is what social structures can exist which would exhibit these features. I reject Moldbug’s neocameralism as unstable. I suggest absolute monarchy as the alternative, but not with very great confidence. I advance the idea in order to test it: to understand how it might fail, and to search for alternatives.
For the last couple of months, I have been hanging out more with libertarians — more than I did when I actually was a libertarian. I’ve been doing that to talk to them about my ideas, in order to refine and improve them. I can talk to libertarians because I used to be one, and I can explain neoreaction as a development of libertarianism because for me that is what it is*. I am not talking to them in order to convince them (though I wouldn’t mind that); I am talking to them in order to get their criticisms. And I’m not looking specifically for libertarian criticisms, it’s just that they’re the easiest for me to talk to. (Does that mean I’m looking for my keys under the lamppost? Probably).
(When I was a libertarian, participation in libertarian meetings was a bit pointless: “You think drugs should be legalised and taxes should be lower? So do I. No, actually I don’t drink.”)
So stage 1 of the Procedure is still in progress, and the essence of it is to improve our ideas to the point where they have a good chance of actually working. That means explaining how a neoreactionary ruler can resist challenges, and how neoreactionary principles can be applied in various plausible scenarios of future systemic breakdown. We really want a lot of detail on this — the equivalent of at least tens of books — and we need it to be good. (The list of principles I scribbled above could use some work, too).
Propaganda really isn’t a priority. In the sort of scenarios where success is feasible, public opinion will be very fluid, and a small group who know what they’re doing will be able to carry the public with them to the degree necessary.
It is worth keeping in mind that knowledge of the faults of democracy already exist in the public consciousness, just dormant or buried under strata of habit and conventional wisdom. It’s not necessary for us to actively argue that (a) the present government is terrible, and (b) the other lot are more or less equally bad. Most intelligent people already accept both. We only have to wait for those facts to become relevant. At that point the task will not be to attack the old system, it will be to show a feasible and superior alternative. That’s what we should be preparing for.
*Of course, it doesn’t have to be. One could come to neoreaction from mainstream conservatism, or from distributism, or from nationalism. In theory it would be possible to come via a kind of luddite environmentalism, but that would probably create a lot of friction.