The appearance and success of what are called “neoliberal” ideas and policies, mainly during the 1980s but with effects that are still very much with us, exists as a challenge to the neoreactionary observation of the leftward drift, or ratchet.
Cthulu always swims left, Moldbug told us, and Jim explained the “holier-than-Jesus” positive-feedback loop in more detail.
What was Cthulu doing when welfare states were rolled back, government operations privatised, and controls on trade removed from (mainly) 1980-1987? Once awoken, he is not supposed to stop for a bit of a lie down and a nap.
It’s not hard to come up with an answer, which I’ve given before on the occasion of Lady Thatcher’s funeral: The loss of influence of concrete (as opposed to theoretical Marxist) working-class interests was caused by the advent of automated manufacturing, which removed the need to concentrate an army of workers in a large factory where they had economic and potentially paramilitary power. This piece by Paul Graham expresses a related view, which was that there was a bubble economy in manufacturing post-war, in which the benefit of rapid growth outweighed cost-efficiency.
The problem is, you can come up with any daft theory about society, and it’s generally “not hard to come up with an answer” to the blatant falsifications of it that occur in reality. Can we define the exceptions to the “leftward drift” theory—the epicycles—in a way that makes it useful for prediction, not just post-hoc sloganeering?
For instance, can neoliberalism be separated as obviously distinct from the normal mechanisms of ideological change? Not as easily as you might think. I have said that it was an “event” rather than a trend, but it still took the best part of a decade. The acceptance of gay marriage, for example, was no less sudden, yet that is attributed to ideological business as usual.
Nor is my claim that neoliberalism was a response to technological change undisputed. It was certainly presented as an ideological development: Thatcher (allegedly) banged The Constitution of Liberty on the table and said, “this is what we believe.” I spent twenty years aligned with the neoliberal ideological movement; I can hardly now claim it didn’t exist.
All I can really see is to insist on the connection of neoliberalism with the technologically-driven end of mass-labour based manufacturing. That would mean, for instance, that I can predict that neoliberal ideas and policies would have made no headway anywhere that old-style manufacturing was still running profitably. Not also I am talking about concrete technology, not “social technology”, which, while a useful concept, is still a bit to vague to effectively restrict the scope of exceptions to leftward drift.
One final thought: I have already attributed the other major rightward movement in history—the appearance of absolute monarchy—to technological change. That’s cropped up a few times for instance in Recap of the Fall of Monarchism
celebrated blog post
of April 2013, neoreaction has been seen as a trinity, or “trichotomy” of three principles: the Ethno-Nationalist principle, the Techno-Commercial principle, and the Religious-Traditionalist
At a shallow level, neoreaction might appear nothing more than a fragile aggregation of advocates of the three very distinct principles—a coalition of rejectionists of the modern consensus. Most outsiders, and some insiders, have seen it that way, leading to an undercurrent of “fissionism”, of splitting up into three factions.
In spite of that there has always been at the core a dim awareness that the three principles make up one whole, that neoreaction is more than the aggregation of its parts. For all that, it has been unclear whether that is meant as one agenda that embraces the three principles, or rather one movement that encompasses three factions. We talk about three, but in Spandrell’s original statement, the Religious–traditional element is only grudgingly mentioned as a possible third stream, and not examined. He is eloquent in his account of being torn between the two other principles:
“If I had to say where I am, is the nationalist branch. But I used to be more on the capitalist camp. The capitalist argument is quite powerful: ethnic kinship is cool but the necessary corollary of it is National-socialism. Or socialism itself. We used to have more asabiyyah than now, but we also had no economic growth. For all the nostalgia for the Victorian age, who wants to go back there? Who prefers ethnic solidarity and purpose to modern medicine and technology? Reaction is based on a fear of where we are headed, certainly not on a dislike of how life is right now. Yes the proles have become barbarians, but they never were that pleasant anyway. Ethnic solidarity by itself is not necessarily conducing of scientific progress and economic growth. And those I agree are good things.
“But the capitalism argument is to allow the market to do its bidding. But what is its bidding right now? In the last decades it has been towards a re-concentration of wealth. Plutocracy is coming back with force. And yeah the plutocrats have made a lot of good stuff. The argument goes that they might do even better stuff if the government wasn’t messing with their ambitions through socialistic regulations. Imagine all the economic growth they might unleash if they were allowed to employ the proles for peanuts! What’s wrong with slave camps if you get cheap cotton, huh?”
This argument is really the heart of neoreaction. In more recent months we have employed the language of Gnon—the God of Nature or Nature, reality which cannot be defied. In terms of Gnon, Spandrell’s conflict is vivid.
Gnon requires creative destruction. There are more effective ways of manipulating the physical world than those we currently employ. The future belongs to those who find and employ those more effective ways. Anything that ties us to the current ways, that prevents us from trying new ways and using them if they are better, will incur the wrath of Gnon.
The Techno-Commercial principle of Neoreaction is aligment with creative destruction, with bankruptcy and the elimination of the failed and the false.
That political identification with creative destruction—markets, competition, freedom to innovate is where Moldbug came from, where I came from, where, according to the extract above, Spandrell came from. But it is not adequate. Gnon is not satisfied with creative destruction alone. Gnon requires power.
A system can be designed, by libertarians or anarcho-capitalists, to maximise creative destruction. But it cannot live. The society which creates it might eschew power, leaving the forces of competition to find the optimum solutions to problems. Others, however, will defect from this view, and occupy the power vacuum. They might come from outside, or from within, but they will come, and they will either succeed, and reshape the society according to their particular group interests, or the attacked will organise themselves to resist, forming their own power centre, which will itself reshape society according to its particular group interests. The potential of loyalty to a succesful group is in human nature, it is given by Gnon. A society of those who deny it will come to be ruled by those who do not.
If Creative Destruction is made concrete in technology and commerce, group loyalty is made concrete in ethnic solidarity and nationalism. They are not the only group loyalties possible, indeed they are not the dominant ones in today’s West, but they are probably in the long run the most stable and reliable. The neoreactionary study of thedes is the science of this principle of Gnon.
The true neoreactionary, following Spandrell, attempts to balance the creativity of techno-commercialism with the stability of ethno-nationalism. Really, that is the whole problem. It being the whole problem, nobody should expect it to be easy, and it is not. In practical application, embodied in the culture of a society, Techno-commercialism is in deadly conflict with Ethno-nationalism. Markets undermine stable positions of power, blur boundaries between in-group and out-group, invite cosmopolitanism and compete away loyalty. National loyalties obstruct trade, splinter markets, paralyse innovation, preserve the unfit in defiance of Gnon. There is no equilibrium to be reached between the two, no dividing line between where each one can act. In a thousand decisions, the choice must be made again and again between the right techno-commercial answer and the right ethno-nationalist answer. This unstable mix can, when the proportions are right, survive and prosper. But the long-run danger is always that one will overpower the other completely, collapsing the society into unproductive socialist nationalism or into hostile memetic capture by an acquisitive thede. It could even be argued, that in today’s West, the principle of balance has survived, but we have the worst of both worlds: a society ruled by a minority thede, in which the point of compromise is to suppress creative destruction. The ruling thede is not a nation or an ethnicity, but a fluid ideologically-based club whose members must endlessly and destructively compete against each other to retain their membership. Competition in the ruling thede, stagnation in the market.
What then is the neoreactionary solution to the hard problem of getting the benefit of both techno-commercialism and thede loyalty at the same time in the same society? There must be an active management of the competing needs. That management cannot be built on either principle, or there can be no balance. It must come from outside both. But, since both have the force of Gnon between them, it must have some power of its own, some authority independent of both commerce and thede, which can impose on either or both as the situation required.
What can fill this role is, frankly, still an open question for me. The most promising possibilities so far suggested are the authority of tradition and the authority of religion. Either one can, in the right cultural setting, empower a judge to rule for competition or for loyalty as necessary for the long-term good of the society. This is the role of the third principle of the neoreactionary trichotomy: to be the respected arbiter between the first two. The trichotomy therefore in its most general form consists of creative destruction, thede loyalty, and authority, but makes most immediate sense as techno-commercialism, ethno-nationalism and religio-traditionalism.
On this framework, a huge amount of very productive earth becomes available for working. What have the effects been of thede alignments divorced from ethnicity? (I only touched on that above in the barest sense). How, and how effectively, have present and past societies achieved balance between the competitive and stabilising forces? Has such success as they have achieved been accidental, or is it repeatable? How have conflicts within each of the three elements affected the overall balance: church and state, nation and region, corporation and entrepreneur? The value in my analysis lies in the degree to which these questions can be answered usefully.
Eric Raymond writes a very good post on Natural Rights and morality. The general approach he takes is the same as mine: utilitarianism sounds alright, but actually predicting the consequences of particular actions at particular moments is so damned hard that the only sensible way to do it is to get to a set of rules that seem to produce mainly good outcomes, and then treat them as if they were moral absolutes. Deep down, I know they’re not moral absolutes, but, as in other fields, a convenient assumption is the only way to make the problem tractable.
Like Raymond, I followed those principles to a libertarian conclusion. Well, to be completely honest, it’s more that I used those principles to justify the “natural rights” that I’d previously considered naively to be self-evident.
It’s still a big step. If you start from moral laws, you can always predict roughly where you’re going to end up. Using a consequentialist framework, even one moderated through a rules-system, there’s always a chance that you may change your mind about what set of proposed “moral absolutes” actually work best. That’s what happened to me.
I was particularly struck by a phenomenon where the more deeply and carefully I attacked a question rationally, the more my best answer resembled some traditional, non-rationalist, formulation. That led me to suspect that where my reasoning did not reach a traditionalist conclusion, I just wasn’t reasoning far enough.
That’s not particularly surprising. Ideas evolve. Richard Dawkins made a big deal of the fact that evolutionary success for an idea isn’t the same thing as success for the people who believe the ideas, and while that is a fair point in itself, I do not recall, at least from his writings back in the 80’s which I read avidly, him drawing a parallel with the well-known conclusion, made here by Matt Ridley via Brian Micklethwait, that in the very long run parasites do better by being less harmful to their hosts. By that principle, new religions (parasitic memeplexes) should be treated with fear and suspicion, while old ones are relatively trustworthy. Hmmm.
There are whole other layers to moral philosophy than this one of “selecting” rules. On one hand, utilitarianism is a slippery and problematic thing in the first place, and on the other side, moral rules, whether absolute laws or fake-absolute heuristics, have to be social to be meaningful, so the question of how they become socialised and accepted cannot be completely disentangled from what they should be. I am satisfied with my way of dealing with both these issues, but at the end of the day, I’m not that keen to write about it. When I think I’ve done moral philosophy well, I end up with something close to common sense. When I do it less well, I end up with things catastrophically worse than common sense. I therefore am inclined to rate common sense above philosophy when it comes to morality.
The essence is that a norm would become established that such an ambition would just be insane. He makes a comparison with parliamentary democracy, where losing parties peacefully relinquish power, because nobody doubts that that is what they are supposed to do.
I think his argument is invalid, and that is based on a fundamental difference between the positions of the outvoted democrat and the security company.
The difference is that the democrat has a binary choice. He either accepts the result of the election, publicly, in which case he must step down, or he rejects it, in which case he is making it clear he is breaching the established expectations.
Private security companies in the Rothbardian sense are not forced into the same “in or out” dilemma. If one wants to protect a piece of property for one client while another wants to protect the same piece of property for another, there are infinite gradations of conflict they can resort to. The lower levels are deniable (“accidents” for example), middling levels can be justified as peaceful bargaining — “sanctions” of various kinds, and the highest levels of conflict, while still consistent with a dispute over a particular legal question, are indistinguishable from a war of conquest. The ability to vary the level of conflict in small steps allows the kind of norms that apply to democracy to be eroded or made irrelevant.
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.
Don’t you think we’re already way past the point where diminishing returns of replacing human activity with automated activity kicked in? Most people are just not that smart, they can’t all be designers and scientists (or can’t be made smart quickly, it is not important which is true as practical results are similar in both cases), and it appears to me that we, the societies of the developed countries, don’t know how to employ these people.
It’s funny: (h/t Isegoria)
The Country Club Republicans put up most of the money and provided meeting places. Important.
The religeous right provided a lot of work. It was they that walked precincts and they that worked phone banks. Very important.
The libertarians talked. The libertarians also complained. They were always too busy talking and complaining to do any work.
… but I don’t think it represents a personal failing on the part of the libertarians this politician attempted to work with. Rather, it exposes the fundamental flaw with libertarian politics. The other groups were important because they had bought into the idea of politics — they had picked their side and were prepared to work to make it win, effectively obtaining what power they could, and trading it with their allies to get help on the few issues they particularly cared about.
For a libertarian, this is fundamentally illegitimate. Libertarians are not comfortable seeking power outside of the specific policy changes they want to make. That makes them, in political terms, useless.
There isn’t a way around this. For a libertarian to accept that he needs to fully engage in the political process, he has to accept that there is more to politics than policy — that who has power is an important thing in its own right. Once you believe that, you are no longer a libertarian.
- Libertarian economics is sound. But libertarian politics is an oxymoron.
- Individualist Libertarianism and collectivist Socialism are opposites. But they came from the same roots and the first always becomes the second.
- Victimless crimes should not be prosecuted. But broken families do more damage than psychopaths.
- No-one should be born into privilege. But the alternative is to compete for power.
- Mencius Moldbug is a lone nutter. But opinion is shifting more and more against democracy.
- Global Warming is rubbish. But it might not have been, and what would have happened then?
- I have always believed that morality only makes sense in terms of the individual. But I can’t remember why.
Much more to follow, if I can find my feet again
Apparently there’s an election campaign on.
By a twist of fate, the first election since I gave up on democratic politics is the first election in which I have the opportunity to influence the result – I would estimate the probability of my vote changing the result as something like 1/100,000 which is non-negligible, and orders of magnitude higher than in previous elections.
My old strategy in elections was, since the main parties are so close as to make no important difference, to attempt to influence the future positions of the parties by voting for fringe candidates.
A related idea is that of Peter Hitchens, who advocates voting against the Conservative party in an attempt to destroy it, opening the possibility of the formation of a new party to represent the conservative majority of the population.
These are both logical ideas, but they depend on the assumption that it is possible to affect the medium-to-long-term political climate by voting, and further, that it is possible to do so in a predictable way. The distinction is important; a butterfly’s wings might affect the path of a hurricane, but it’s not possible to aim a hurricane at a particular target by strategically releasing butterflies.
I do not accept the assumption. The Conservative Party does not represent the conservative tendency of the population, it is the conservative tendency of the political class. I could affect the political landscape (in a tiny but non-negligible way) by joining the political class, but not by voting. I’m not willing to join the political class, as I have better things to do with my life.
My conclusion is that I now see myself as a subject of the political class, rather than as a citizen of a democracy. That’s calming – when I thought the government was “my” government, I was infuriated by how bad it was, but as a subject, I look at the tidbits of protection and freedom that my ruler gives me, and my position isn’t so bad really, compared with that of most people who have ever lived.
And next month, as a free bonus, like a free entry in a prize draw, I get a tiny but non-negligible chance to have a small effect on the government itself. Well, why shouldn’t I take it? If I thought I was more than a subject, then the trivial choice offered to me by David Cameron would be such an insult that I would spurn it as a matter of principle. Nobody who sucks up to the environmentalist lobby and who accepts that government should control more than a third of the economy can possibly represent me. But as a free gift to a subject – well, no more attacks on Home Education, scrapping ID cards, a faint possibility of lower taxes – I guess I’ll take box “C”, since you’re offering.
I suspect that normal, sane people have always looked at elections this way – that would explain much of the mental gap between idealists such as I used to be and the rest of the population. It does make me wonder what would happen if normal people thought like we do – possibly they would demand a democracy and the whole country would go down the tubes.
That does leave me the choice of what to do about my membership of the Libertarian Party. For me, the party only ever had one useful point from the very beginning – getting Chris Mounsey on television. Now that that’s actually starting to happen, I think I should continue to give support, even if it’s not, by all accounts, going too well so far.
Clay Shirky has written another essay about the future of media. It’s main point is that big established businesses will not adapt to the new media marketplace because it’s actually impossible for them to reshape their large corporate structures to meet the new need. That’s a good argument, but a familiar one – it’s the essence of “disruptive innovation”, and it’s something Tim B Lee has been saying for a while.
What’s new to me, though, is the analogy he introduces the idea with. He cites Joseph Tainter as arguing that a similar process applies to societies – they become more productive by being more complex, but when they become overcomplex, it’s not possible for them to simplify instead, and they must eventually collapse.
“Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some”
That’s horribly persuasive. It needn’t even be, as Shirky puts it, that the elites add more complexity beyond the point where it adds value. If circumstances change so that the previously optimal level of complexity is now excessive, the result is the same.
If there’s one reason why libertarians tend to be in software, it’s that software is more complex than other things humans design (since it doesn’t have to be actually built), and that programmers are therefore more aware that complexity is a cost. The biggest cost of adding a feature to a piece of software is not the time you spend making it, it’s the fact that your software is now more complex, and everything else you do with it in future is made more difficult by that complexity. Similarly, the biggest cost of adding a government program is not what you immediately spend on hiring people to do it, it is that you have made government bigger, in a way that is almost impossible to reverse when changes in the world or changes in what you want to do demand it.
Of course, saying that government cannot be simplified at the margin is just another way of saying that libertarian politics cannot be successful. The only people with any approach that can succeed in the face of Tainter’s theory are these guys.