Alrenous has played the Thesis 11 card:
Alrenous @Alrenous 2h2 hours ago
Finally, if you’re really confident in your philosophy, it should move you action. Or why bother?
You moved to China. Good work.
Edit: I totally misread Alrenous here: he’s not saying “Change the world”, he’s saying “change your own life/environment”. So the below, while still, in my view, true and important, is not particularly relevant to his point. Oh well.
He makes a valid point that good knowledge cannot be achieved without trying things:
Alrenous @Alrenous 3h3 hours ago
Have to be willing to fail to do something new. Something new is patently necessary. NRx isn’t willing to fail. That’s embarrassing.
The problem with this is that neoreaction is the science of sovereignty. Like, say, the science of black holes, it is not really possible for the researcher with modest resources to proceed by experiment, valuable though that would be.
We have ideas on how to use and retain sovereignty, but less to say about how to achieve it. There is a great deal of prior art on how to gain power via elections, guerrilla warfare, coup d’état, infiltration; we don’t really have much of relevance to add to it.
We could do experiments in this area, by forming a political party or a guerrilla army or whatever, but that’s a long way from our core expertise, and though we would like to experiment with sovereignty, attempting to get sovereignty over the United States to enable our experiments is possibly over-ambitious. We could hope to gain some small share of power, but we believe that a share of power is no good unless it can be consolidated into sovereignty.
Given that we do not have special knowledge of achieving power, it seems reasonable that we should produce theory of how power should be used, and someone better-placed to get power and turn it into sovereignty should run their military coup or whatever, and then take our advice. That’s what we care about, even if cool uniforms would be better for getting chicks.
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.
Since then, we have seen Steve Bannon, who apparently has at least read about and understood Moldbug, in a position of significant power in the Trump administration. We have seen Peter Thiel also with some kind of influence, also with at least sympathies towards NRx. These are not achievements in the sense that in themselves they make anything better. But they are experimental validations of the strategy of building a body of theory and waiting for others to consume it.
I have for the last few days been suggesting that Mark Zuckerberg could win the presidency as a moderate technocrat who will save the country from Trump and the Alt-Right Nazis, consolidate power beyond constitutional limits, as FDR did, and reorganise FedGov along the lines of Facebook Inc. This outcome is, frankly, not highly probable, but I insist that it is not absurd. One of the things that controls the possibility of this sort of outcome is whether people in positions of influence think it would be a good thing or a bad thing. If, with our current level of intellectual product we can get to the point of 2017 Bannon, is it not plausible that with much more product, of higher quality, much more widely known and somewhat more respectable, the environment in DC (or London or Paris) could be suitable for this sort of historically unremarkable development to be allowed to happen?
This, presumably, is the strategy the Hestia guys are pursuing with Social Matter and Jacobite, and I think it is the right one. We are at a very early stage, and we have a long way to go before a smooth takeover of the United States would be likely, though in the event of some exceptional crisis or collapse, even our immature ideas might have their day. But we do have experimental feedback of the spread of our ideas to people of intelligence and influence: if we had ten Ross Douthats, and ten Ed Wests, and ten Peter Thiels, discussing the same ideas and putting them into the mainstream, we would have visible progress towards achieving our goals.
I have long ago observed that, whatever its effect on government, democracy has great entertainment value. We are certainly being entertained by the last couple of days, and that looks like going on for a while.
From one point of view, the election is a setback for neoreaction. The overreach of progressivism, particularly in immigration, was in danger of toppling the entire system, and that threat is reduced if Trump can restrain the demographic replacement of whites.
On the other hand, truth always has value, and the election result has been an eye-opener all round. White American proles have voted as a block and won. The worst of the millennial snowflakes have learned for the first time that their side isn’t always bound to win elections, and have noticed many flaws of the democratic process that possibly weren’t as visible to them when they were winning. Peter Thiel’s claims that democracy is incompatible with freedom will look a bit less like grumblings of a bad loser once Thiel is in the cabinet. Secession is being talked about, the New York Times has published an opinion column calling for Monarchy. One might hope that Lee Kuan Yew’s observations on the nature of democracy in multi-racial states might get some currency over the next few months or years.
So, yes, President Trump may save the system for another two or three decades (first by softening its self-destructive activities, and later by being blamed for every problem that remains). But Anomaly UK is neutral on accelerationism; if the system is going to fail, there is insufficient evidence to say whether it is better it fail sooner or later. If later, it can do more damage to the people before it fails, but on the other hand, maybe we will be better prepared to guide the transition to responsible effective government.
We will soon be reminded that we don’t have responsible effective government. Enjoyable as fantasies of “God Emperor Trump” have been, of course the man is just an ordinary centre-left pragmatist, and beyond immigration policy and foreign policy becoming a bit more sane, there is no reason to expect any significant change at all. The fact that some people were surprised by the conciliatory tone of his victory speech is only evidence that they were believing their own propaganda. He is not of the Alt-Right, and the intelligent of the Alt-Right never imagined that he was.
For the Alt-Right, if he merely holds back the positive attacks on white culture, he will have done what they elected him to do. Progressives can argue that there can be no such thing as anti-white racism, and that whites cannot be allowed the same freedoms as minority groups since their historical privilege will thereby be sustained. But even if one accepts that argument, it doesn’t mean that those who reject it are White Nationalists. Blurring the two concepts might make for useful propaganda, but it will not help to understand what is happening.
My assessment of what is happening is the same as it was in March: I expect real significant change in US immigration policy, and pretty much no other changes at all. I expect that Trump will be allowed to make those changes. It is an indication of the way that progressive US opinion dominates world media that people in, say, Britain, are shocked by the “far-right” Americans electing a president who wants to make America’s immigration law more like Britain’s–all while a large majority in Britain want to make Britain’s immigration law tougher than it is.
The fact that US and world markets are up is a clue that much of the horror expressed at Trump’s candidacy was for show, at least among those with real influence.
The polls were way off again. The problem with polling is that it is impossible. You simply can’t measure how people are going to vote. The proxies that are used–who people say they support, what they say they are going to do–don’t carry enough information, and no amount of analysis will supply the lacking information. The polling analysis output is based on assumptions about the difference between what they say and what they will do–the largest variable being whether they will actually go and vote at all. (So while this analyst did a better job and got this one right, the fundamental problems remain)
In a very homogeneous society, polling may be easier, because there’s less correlation between what candidate a person supports and how they behave. But the more voting is driven by demographics, the less likely the errors are to cancel out.
If arbitrary assumptions have to be made, then the biases of the analysts come into play. But that doesn’t mean the polls were wrong because they were biased–it just means they were wrong because they weren’t biased right.
On to the election itself, obviously the vital factor in the Republican victory was race. Hillary lost because she’s white. Trump got pretty much the same votes Romney did; Hillary got the white votes that Obama did in 2012, but she didn’t get the black votes because she isn’t black, so she lost.
So what of the much-talked-of emergence of white identity politics? The thing is, that really happened, but it happened in 2012 and before. It was nothing to do with Trump. The Republican party has been the party of the white working class for decades. Obama took a lot of those votes in 2008, on his image as a radical and a uniter, but that was exceptional, and he didn’t keep them in 2012.
The exit polls show Trump “doing better” among black people than Romney or McCain, but that probably doesn’t mean they like him more: it’s an artifact of the lower turnout. The republican minority of black voters voted in 2016 mostly as before, but the crowds who came out to vote for their man in 2008 and 2012 stayed home, so the percentage of black voters voting Republican went up.
The big increase in Trump’s support over Romney from Hispanics is probably not explainable the same way. A pet theory (unsupported by evidence) is that they’ve been watching Trump on TV for years and years and they like him.
The lesson of all this is that, since 2000, the Democratic party cannot win a presidential election with a white candidate. There’s a reason they’re already talking about running Michelle Obama. They’ve lost the white working class, and the only way to beat those votes is by getting black voters out to vote for a black candidate. While we’re talking about precedents, note that the last time a Democrat won a presidential election without either being the incumbent or running from outside the party establishment was 1960.
Update: taking Nate Silver’s point about the closeness of the result, my statements about what’s impossible are probably overconfident: Hillary might have squeaked a win without the Obama black vote bonus, maybe if her FBI troubles had been less. Nevertheless, I think if the Democrats ever nominate a white candidate again, they’ll be leaving votes on the table unnecessarily.
In my previous post discussing the tension between Bureaucracy and Aristocracy, I was not actually describing two forms of government, but three.
The ‘tension’ is between bureaucratic centralism, where a central authority rules through appointed officials, and aristocracy, where offices belong to a noble class who have some guaranteed degree of independence from the central power.
What we actually have today is neither one nor the other, but a self-perpetuating and largely unaccountable bureaucracy. It is not quite yet a true aristocracy, though it is well on the way, but it is
nearly immune from “political influence”, to the degree it is sometimes openly demanding such immunity.
So when Spandrell comments that there is no alternative to rule by bureaucracy, I am not quite sure what he means. Certainly we have had no aristocratic rule in a modern country for a couple of centuries; the dominant ideology has been set against it. However, it does not seem impossible to have a bureaucracy under genuine central control. I get the impression that prior to World War II, the governments of Britain and the USA were mostly in control of their bureaucracies: they could fire officials and dictate policy.
Moldbug’s interpretation of US history is that the FDR Government was entirely in sympathy with the bureaucracy, and effectively did not end as later governments were not able to divert the Civil Service from the path that FDR set it on.
In Britain, the Civil Service seems to have gained power over approximately the same period, due to a combination of the destruction of the old ruling class in the Great War, and the arrival of Labour politicians, outsiders to the government system, who the Civil Servants were both willing and able to defy.
My answer, therefore, is that it is possible for a government to rule through a bureaucracy, rather than being ruled by it, and that this was the normal situation prior to 1918, and to a lesser degree even up to 1945. If the government were no longer subject to elections and media opinion, it would be in a much stronger position to impose its will on the bureaucrats.
As for aristocratic rule: if the existing civil servants were to mainly hire their own children, we would be there — it is conceivable that we could have a de facto aristocracy within a decade or
two. Replacing the existing bureaucracy with a different aristocracy, such as the old titled families of Britain, is more far-fetched; but given (somehow) the total ideological sea change that it would require, there are no practical obstacles to it functioning.
Democracy affects the tension between the centre and the bureaucracy in two major ways: as above, the precarious position of elected politicians weakens them vis-a-vis their permanent officials (Moldbug’s “rotor/stator” point). Second, the employment of very large numbers of low-ranking officials becomes one of the main forms of vote-buying. The junior officials do not have direct power over policy in the sense that senior civil servants do, but they have democratic power over questions relating to their continued employment and working conditions. In Britain particularly, the Labour party is now overwhelmingly the party of state employees. Without votes, the block power of junior state employees would be vastly diminished.
Admin note: anonymous commenting is now enabled for the blog
Moldbug’s coining “The Cathedral” has caught on and been the subject of much debate, but his other term “The Modern Structure” less so, which is a shame.
The Modern Structure is the constitution of the United States of America, in the sense that that term was originally used — a description of how the government of that country operates. Other Western Democracies have very similar constitutions.
The centre of the Modern Structure is the Civil Service. They actually carry out the business of government.
In theory, they are under the control of Politicians, but in reality the politicians are at most peers of the civil service, and in many cases completely subservient.
In theory again, the Politicians are controlled by the Electorate. However, the influence of the Electorate is slight: enough to tip the balance occasionally when the issue is close, but not to dictate anything. Further, on any issue, the majority of the electorate are completely ignorant, and depend on the media for information about the issue and how they should vote.
Meanwhile, business has at least as much influence on the politicians, and additionally has direct influence on the civil service (through lobbying and other forms of corruption).
In terms of power over government policy, then, the map of influences look something like this:
That is less than half the story, however. In the long run, what matters is not how the noisy controversies of the moment get resolved, but rather what is or is not controversial in the first place. That is the matter of the dominant ideology — what all the people in this network believe about what is and what should be.
The ideology is not fixed: it has changed enormously over mere decades. Who has influence over ideology?
The high status of the organs of the modern structure make them significant, but there are other important influences, and other directions of influence within the network.
This diagram shows the flows of ideological influence. For this purpose I have broken out of “Education” the most crucial organ of ideological influence — “Elite Academia”. This is where ideology comes from.
It is true that, in a sense, everything influences everything else. However, a fully-connected undirected graph has little information content, so the diagram only shows what I think are the biggest influences on what people believe.
I have left out business from the ideology diagram. My view is that while business and lobbyists are able to significantly affect policy, they has very little influence on what people believe. They perhaps have the capability of causing such influence, but in practice businesses are primarily in competition with each other, and it is much more profitable for each player to spend his influence on favouring his own narrow interests rather than on promoting a general business-oriented ideology. To the extent that a business-oriented ideology exists, it is developed by enthusiasts, and funded more by a few eccentrics such as the Kochs rather than by moneyed interests as a whole.
However, this is a disputed point, so here’s the diagram with them added back in, and with the Conservative media broken out from the respectable media.
With or without business interests, it is in the network of ideological influence that we see “The Cathedral” — Elite Academia and Respectable Media — at the core. Ideology flows out from them.
It should go without saying, that this is not intended to be the last word: it is my interpretation of what is mostly general knowledge, and there is a lot of room for refinement, correction and expansion.
I suspect my
of what a collapse of society looks like is heavily influenced by the
1970s TV series Noah’s
which I saw when I was a child.
As I recall, the plot was that this chap saw that things were all going
wrong, and moved out to the country and stocked his cellar up with
food. The point of the story was the moral dilemma of whether he would
keep his stores for his own whiny ungrateful kids or open them up to
the hungry mob at his gates.
The purported dilemma seemed almost as inane to me thirty-odd years
ago as it does today, but the image of the wild horde begging for the
tinned spam in the basement stuck with me.
That’s my excuse, anyway, because looking at the idea now, it’s not
all that convincing. Firstly, whether you feel like giving away your
hoard is a minor question compared to whether you can hang onto
it. Second, if it really did get to the stage where the existing food
distribution mechanisms broke down, or food became too expensive for
the masses, we would be looking at a minimum of hundreds of thousands
starving. Third, drastic changes in government would happen before
that, so reactionaries who waited for actual anarchy before acting as
I recommended recently would be leaving it too late.
So the question is, what are the stages of the collapse of the state?
At what point can a reactionary leader claim to be restoring order
rather than opposing order?
I plan to write a few posts looking at the likeliest possibilities,
but first there are a couple of other lines to rule out.
Simple state bankruptcy is not the answer. States can and do run out
of money, without losing control. As we have seen in Cyprus, the state
can simply confiscate what it needs taxation no longer suffices.
Running out of money could very well contribute to a failure of the
state, but in itself it does not constitute a failure.
A foreign invasion obviously is a failure, but that’s not a likely
scenario for Britain, so that can be ruled out.
My current theory is that democracy probably goes first. Once the
progressives have abandoned or bypassed democracy, even as a temporary
expedient, it becomes possible for reactionaries to claim that since
the rulers’ position is no longer justified democratically, there is
no reason for the people who caused the crisis to remain in power.
I will expand on this later.
Spandrell talks of three groups among the reactionary movement: capitalist, religious/traditionalist, and ethnic/nationalists. He and Nick Land both consider the degree to which the three groups will be able to work together.
The answer, for me, depends entirely on what the work is that is to be done. That depends again on what the path is for getting to a reactionary state, which I am long overdue to pay more attention to.
It has to depend on local circumstances. For Britain, the path that looks most plausible to me is the restoration of the existing monarchy to power. America needs to take some other path: possibly a seccession, possibly a military takeover. The future reactionary ruler could get there by commanding an army or militia, by being stonkingly rich, or a TV personality, or even a prophet.
In any case, what I see as the future goal is not a ruling politburo of reactionary philosophers, whether neoreactionary, othodox, ethno-nationalist or any combination thereof. What seems more likely is someone who gets power by a more practical method, in a crisis, then points at all the reactionary theory and explains that he’s not going form a transitional administration with the goal of free elections in X months because that would be repeating the mistakes of the past. Rather, he is going to continue to govern according to these fine guiding principles which these clever people have worked out, and will rule in a reactionary manner.
The supporters of this regime will overwhelmingly not be neoreactionaries, they will not be ethnonationalists, they will be ordinary people whose reasoning is “Fuck it, maybe this will work, nothing else has”. That’s the key constituency.
For this to happen, some ideas will have to be widespread: that the solution to the problems of democracy is not more democracy, that the obsessions of the lefter-than-thou pharisees of progressivism are insane, that stable government is so much preferable to anarchy that unpleasant policies should be tolerated for the sake of peace.
However, though distrust of democracy and progressive purity are spreading and might easily become widespread over the next decade or so, true apathy — the belief that, like it or dislike it, government policy is not your responsibility — is a much tougher goal. Stirring up apathy, in Lord Whitelaw’s immortal words, is very difficult. That’s why I believe the wheel has to go full circle — we will have to experience anarchy before we can have the reaction. If we are lucky the anarchy may be brief and not too destructive.
Without anarchy, there will still be a progressive party. If a reactionary movement defeats it, it will remain as an opposition and have to be fought at every turn, and the process of fighting it will nullify most of the advantages that reaction brings. The government will have to actively court popularity in order to weaken the progressive opposition, and that dependence on public opinion politicises what should be the non-political aspects of government.
Progressivism needs to be so discredited that the population will view it with revulsion without the state needing to bargain with them to reject it.
Because I do not see a “reactionary party” as forming any part in the process, the question of cooperation between the wings of the reactionary movement does not really arise. The work we have to do is to get the theory done, and prepare the ground. We will do that between us, and whether in overt cooperation or in rivalrous competition doesn’t really matter. If the first ruler is there because he wins a race war, then the contribution to theory of the ethnonationalists will be important. If he has raised an army of religious crusaders, the orthodox will be more important. If he has carved a peaceful oasis out of the anarchy by hiring mercenaries with the profits from his data haven business, he’s going to be paying attention to the futurists. The initial political formula doesn’t matter too much, provided that it’s not demotist. The political formula that will stick is, “this is what gives us peace and order”.
You cannot claim that formula if you start out by attacking the peace and order that exists already. That is why reaction has to wait. It has to restore order from anarchy. The standard to initially rally around will not be reactionary theory per se. It will be something that can restore order — flag, crown, cross, or something else. I don’t think it is likely that there will be multiple reactionary choices at this stage. Whatever has the best chance of producing order will attract the support. The reason I emphasise royalty and call myself a royalist is because, in Britain, the Crown looks like the most likely candidate. Religion frankly isn’t at all plausible here — several football clubs have a better chance of concentrating sufficient power than any church does. Ethno-nationalists are also a possibility (the distinction between nationalist groups and football supporters’ groups is a blurry one anyway). Is Tesco in the running too? I doubt it, but who knows?
The old order will fall when parallel power structures start to form outside its control. This could happen first in some localities or it could happen all at once (if the state is no longer able to pay its employees, for example). When it is no longer a case of trying to take over the existing state, but rather to create a new one, it becomes possible for reactionaries to act.
The rivals will be the democrats, the hard left, and Islam. The old hard left has pretty much dissolved into the establishment, and does not look like much of an independent threat. Islam doesn’t have the numbers, even in Luton, though it will probably organise effectively earlier than anyone else. Assuming the actual state institutions are not functioning, the democrats will be fighting on equal terms with the others, but with the aim of restoring democracy. At that point, it becomes OK to fight them, though it would be preferable to ignore them. Immediate tactical necessity is likely to dominate strategy at this stage — that’s why the strategic propaganda work has to already have been done, the narrative that says that democracy and progressivism brought on the breakdown, that it was predictable and expected, and that only those who truly value order can now achieve it, has to already be in place. The failure has to be seen as the failure of the system, not of one party or faction. That will reduce the support that politicians get during the anarchy, compared to other authority figures. Even the authority figures who are gathering forces at that point will not be talking theory, they will be asking for support to create local, short-term order. If the ground has been prepared properly, the traditional conservatives, the Christians, the ethno-nationalists and the neoreactionaries will all support the same quasi-state.
That said, some political formulæ will cause more difficulties than others. The problem with religion is that people will disagree about it, and claim it justifies them in fighting the (new) state. For that reason, I don’t think a reactionary state that fundamentally justifies itself on religious grounds will be successful for long. However, a state that justifies itself on the grounds of protecting Christianity from outside enemies (progressivism, Islam, etc.) should be able to earn the loyalty of the faithful without getting tied up in the theological disputes among them. The arms-length relationship between church and state that we have in Britain seems about right* — the ruler is Defender of the Faith, but not Priest-King.
The facts that we have to spread among the public ahead of time are much less than full reaction. They are just the context in which reaction can take its place:
- There is such a thing as progressivism, and there are non-progressive ideas, not just more and less progressive ideas
- There are otherwise sane people who hold non-progressive ideas
- That some aspects of government are the result of the democratic system, and not of the particular politicians who have been elected
- That a more peaceful and ordered society is possible, and that even the peace and order we still have are at risk
If those ideas are widespread, then reality will do the rest when the time comes.
* bit of a fishy coincidence there, but I can’t see a hole in it. It would make sense to back off a little from “Head of the Church”.
Generally, when I’m asked to explain “What is a neoreactionary?” (perhaps using alternative terms such as nu-reaction or the Dark Enlightenment), my response is to point elsewhere, at Moldbug or at Nick Land, or even at Scott Alexander’s outsider’s view.
However, good sources though they are, they’re not always appropriate. They’re all extremely verbose. Moldbug and Alexander are really writing for very politically aware progressives, and Land is even more abstruse. Moldbug is the Jeremy Clarkson of political philosophy: while I find his style of presentation highly enjoyable, there’s no doubt that many others find it unbearable.
So maybe we need a more concise introduction.
The Concise Introduction
For five hundred years, there have been attempt to reorder human society on the basis that hereditary privilege, and many other kinds of inequality between humans, are unjust. Reformers have attempted to alter systems of government and other institutions of society with the goal of reducing or eliminating these injustices.
These reformers have consistently underestimated the difficulty of getting people to cooperate in a society. The intellectual techniques of science and engineering that produced miracles in terms of manipulating the natural world, have, time after time, failed catastrophically to improve the lives of humans through changing government and society.
There are a number of reasons for this: For one thing, humans are much more complex than any of the parts and tools with which engineers have made machines. They will not fit in where they are put. Attempts to persuade or compel them to fit into the machine have to be built into the machine themselves, and end up changing the functioning of the machine so much that it no longer achieves its intended goal.
Most importantly, humans have evolved to compete for influence and power, by violence and by deceit. Any reform which attempts to limit or remove the power of the holders of power creates a competition for that power, which will lead to spectacular efforts by everybody else to win it. The innovations that will be produced by such high-stakes competition are impossible to predict or plan for.
Meanwhile, developments in technology have improved people’s lives so much that the calamitous decline in quality of government has been disguised. All mainstream political factions are intellectual descendants of the original reformers, and none have any interest in fairly comparing present-day government with traditional government. Those that are called “conservatives” are only reformers who oppose the most recently enacted or proposed reforms: none of them question the principle or the intellectual basis of progressivism.
Most neoreactionary writing consists of detailed criticism of particular progressive reforms, with particular emphasis on the flaws in one specific idea — democracy.
Ultimately, however, if after all these centuries of trying to improve society based on abstract ideas of justice have only made life worse than it would have been under pre-Enlightenment social systems, the time has come to simply give up the whole project and revert to traditional forms whose basis we might not be able to establish rationally, but which have the evidence of history to support them.
Neoreaction for Reactionaries
Some of the inquiries I spoke of at the beginning have come from old-fashioned reactionaries. The short answer for them is that it doesn’t matter. Neoreaction is not a new, better form of reaction that you should be upgrading to — rather, you’ve found a short-cut past what for us has generally been a long and laborious journey, one that has mostly passed through libertarianism or other forms of liberalism. A lot of our discussion will seem wrong-headed to you, and your theology is mostly irrelevant to us, but when the subject is more immediately practical, we are likely to be closer together.
The Enlightenment position is that knowledge should be objective. I think that originated in an analogy with the scientific method: the only conclusions that should be accepted are those which can be independently verified. If I say that a bird cannot live in air in which a candle has burned out, you should be able to put a bird in a jar with a candle and kill it the same way. If you can’t, then my claims are not objective, and are scientifically worthless.
The Enlightenment extended this principle to government. The decision of a government should not be made on the basis of one person’s private judgement; it should be made by a scientific process, and the reasons for making it should be objective facts that others can share.
Democracy requires that principle. Like science, democracy requires that one person’s conclusions can be replicated by another. In some cases the replication may not be contemporaneous with the actual decision, but the principle must still be that “If you knew what I know”, you would reach the same conclusion, and the politican can be judged retrospectively by that standard.
Hayek identified the problem with this approach. The main problem is “Tacit Knowledge”. Tacit knowledge is what you know, but you don’t know that you know. It is knowledge that cannot be shared just by publishing a paper, but only, if at all, by teaching a craft.
A decision that has to be justified objectively cannot rely on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is, by definition, subjective. A person, who, in whatever environment, is making a decision that is going to be evaluated by others, must deliberately ignore subjective considerations — tacit knowledge — and make what seems to be the best decision without that knowledge.
This process has a catastrophic impact on personal responsibility. If I make a decision not because, based on all my knowledge objective and tacit, I think it is the right one, but rather, because it is the one I can best justify to someone else, then I am no longer responsible for the result of my decision, only for the process (sound familiar?).
If someone is responsible for the results of their decision, rather than for the process of making the decision, then they will naturally make the decision most likely to have the desired result, and they will do so based on all the knowledge they have, objective and tacit.
The practical difference is most obvious in the case of choosing people. Judging other people is an innate skill: it is something our minds have evolved to do particularly well. Indeed, it is plausible that human intelligence is primarily evolved to assess other people, and, conversely, to deceive other people. Our knowledge of each other is therefore almost entirely tacit. Trying to estimate another person’s qualities using only objective criteria is like walking around a house blindfolded.
(This doesn’t mean I’m arguing for primacy of the subjective — I’m not saying we should “trust our feelings” and close our eyes to objective facts. We should also be prepared to suppress our subjective impressions where there is evidence they are unreliable. But that is not the case, particularly where we are doing what we have evolved to do, which is to evaluate the people we know well).
It seems like a small thing, but if you want people to be able to make decisions based on tacit knowledge, you actually have to change everything about the way our society is organised. For two hundred years almost every change has been to remove human judgement and replace it with objective process.
Obviously reversing it starts with abolishing democracy and restoring monarchy, but I don’t think you can really manage without restoring some kind of aristocracy as well — subjective judgements of trust and, to a lesser degree, ability, are going to rely heavily on actual personal contact, and people who are regular contact with each other, on a family basis, are going to develop their own standards of trustworthy behaviour, with a distinct disparity in trust between insiders and outsiders.
I have a theory about Weimar Germany. It’s unencumbered with much in the way of evidence, but I did cover the subject at school, and I can remember bits.
The popular theory, which I’ve alluded to previously, is that the big event was this chap Hitler. He was some supernatural weirdo from Hell, who, like a false prophet, inspired the normal, liberal people of Germany to give up their democratic birthright and follow his dreams of securing lebensraum for the master race, etc, etc.
Then there’s that slightly odd bit where he didn’t actually win the election, but he did fairly well and it sort of counted as near enough, so he was declared Chancellor and allowed to take over everything in sight. It kind of seems like some sort of dodgy conspiracy, but it’s not obvious whose.
My theory, grounded on the above, is that by — what are we talking, 1933? — democracy had so completely, utterly, failed that nobody, least of all those actually running it, could stomach it carrying on one year longer. The only question was what to do instead? There were communists kicking around, but that wasn’t an attractive idea for the ruling class. And there was this Hitler dude, and while he had a bunch of somewhat fruitcake ideas, he seemed to have support, he was serious about changing things, and at least he wasn’t a commie. What else was there? Even the leading democratic politicians didn’t have any better idea than letting him have a go.
There was one other option, of course. As I linked to once before, it is claimed that President Hindenburg, in his will, indicated a desire to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy.
An interesting irony of history is that this, had it happened, would surely have been seen by the Allies / International Community as an outrageously aggressive, warlike, and unacceptable development. In comparison, the extension of powers held by a prominent politician, in order to deal with a crisis, seemed far less dangerous.
It’s a cool story. I fear that if I had learned my O-level history better, or forgotten less of it, I would see some obvious flaw in it, but I really don’t have time these days to relearn it.
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.