Secrecy is a central issue

I had to explain again in response to a comment on my “Decline of Conspiracy” post that, no, the Cathedral is not a conspiracy. It makes more sense to say that the Cathedral is the opposite of a conspiracy. It is what you get when there are no conspiracies 1.

The word “conspiracy” is basically clickbait, but I’m going to stick with it anyway. Be aware, though, that I don’t mean anything really weird by it. The management of any company is a conspiracy, in that the members discuss plans in private and only publicise them if it is advantageous for them to do so 2. @drethlin pointed out on twitter that HBO were able to keep the secret of the ending of Game of Thrones for months, despite hundreds of people needing to know it to make the episode.

In this sense, conspiracies are normal and common, though not quite as common as they used to be. That was my argument in the earlier piece: that as recently as a decade or so ago, a political party (or at least a faction within it) could agree an agenda in private and make confidential plans to pursue that agenda. That capability seems, since then, to have been lost. The key debates between leading politicians of the same party over what goals should be pursued and what means should be employed to pursue them are carried out in public.

I stand by that point. But on reflection I think it’s a much bigger deal. This is a recent development in a much longer trend. As I wrote yesterday in a comment, the Cathedral is defined by its lack of secrecy. The distinctive role of the universities and the press is to inform the public, and to do so with authoritative status. It is not defined by its ideology. However, its ideological direction is a predictable consequence of its transparency. A public competition for admiration causes a movement to the extreme: the most attractive position is the one just slightly more extreme than the others 3. This is the “holiness spiral”

The breakdown of conspiracy, then, is not just a phenomenon of the last decade that has given us Trump and so on. It is the root cause of the political direction of the last few centuries.

What is the cause of the breakdown of conspiracy? If I had to guess and point at one thing it would be protestantism. That, after all, was largely a move to remove the secrecy from religion 4. Once democracy got going, that removed much more secrecy. But it’s still an ongoing process: democracy until recently was mediated by non-public formal and informal institutions. The opening of the guilds can be seen as part of the same trend. Many of the things I have written about in the past may be related — the decline in personal loyalty, for example.

That produces a feedback loop — a belief in equality and openness brings more decision-making into the public sphere, which leads to holiness spirals, which leads to ever increasing belief in equality and openness. But it seems to me that the openness comes first, and the ideology results from it. The Cathedral is a sociological construct, not an ideological one.

Openness has benefits, of course. The advance of knowledge, and of commerce, were made possible or accelerated by the decline of secrecy. But it’s still useful to keep secrets.

Restating the “decline of conspiracy” argument in this context: until recently, the Cathedral, being fundamentally transparent, was subject to the peacock’s-tail type holiness spiral5 as defined above. Through democracy it caused politics to follow. However, the actual powers of the state were immediately in the hands of the civil service and political parties, who were not transparent, and exerted a moderating influence. There were self-perpetuating groups of powerful people — conspiracies — who could limit the choices open to the electorate and therefore slow the long-term political trends driven by the Cathedral. Today, as a result of internal democracy in political parties (particularly in the UK, a very recent development), and of unmediated channels of communication, those conspiracies have been broken open. A politician today is fundamentally in the same business as a journalist or a professor — he is competing for status by means of public statements. The internal debates of political parties are now public debates. In the past, in order to become a politician, other politicians had to accept you. Now you can be a TV star or a newspaper columnist today, and be a politician tomorrow. The incumbents can’t quietly agree to stop you, any more than they could quietly agree to have pizza for lunch.

  1. The term “prospiracy” has been used, going back to Eric Raymond long before Moldbug, but his description fits perfectly.
  2. And where required by securities law
  3. At a given moment, moderation might win. But the choice is between the moderate and the extreme, and whenever the extreme wins, the idea of what is moderate moves to follow it. So in the long run, there is a move to the extreme. Extremely what? Extremely good.
  4. I’m open to the idea that protestantism itself was just part of a broader trend. That’s a question for people more expert in early modern history than I am.
  5. Or “Signalling arms race” as Spandrell puts it — probably a better term

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